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What are the prospects that the House will pass useful immigration legislation? Republican Rep. Tom Cole, a close ally to the House leadership, expressed a kind of cautious pessimism last week. "We're not sure we can chew gum, let alone walk and chew gum," Cole told the Hill newspaper.
It's hard to dispute Cole's low opinion of the House's competence. But House leaders are under increasing pressure to act on immigration from business groups as well as immigration activists. Internal political pressures may mount as well.
After the government shutdown fiasco, some Republicans are newly vulnerable. Their re-election could be further threatened if Speaker John Boehner continues catering to the far right by refusing to bring immigration legislation to the floor.
Polls show broad public support for reform, including a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. President Barack Obama supports it, too, and the Senate, in June, passed such a bill 68-32 a thumping bipartisan victory.
Obstacles abound, of course, but a few potential pathways to success can still be discerned. Several bills working their way through the House would be distinctly positive steps.
The House Homeland Security Committee's bipartisan border security bill, for example, would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a strategy to control the border within two years, rather than throwing money and manpower at the problem willy-nilly, as the Senate bill does.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have produced their own legislation, which essentially takes the Senate bill and replaces its bloated border security provisions with the House Homeland Security Committee legislation. This is a ploy to force Boehner's hand.
If Republican inertia continues, Republican moderates will be able to issue a threat to Boehner: Bring a comprehensive immigration bill to the floor or we'll sign on to the Democrats' bill. Indeed, last weekend, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of California did just that.
House leaders have other options. They could bundle and pass legislation containing a handful of Republican provisions for example, to strengthen border control, to establish an E-Verify system for authenticating worker identities and to increase the number of visas for high-skilled workers. That could then go to conference with the Senate bill, and a single package would emerge for both chambers to vote on.
This path might enrage immigration opponents in the Republican conference. But it may be the only way to get serious reform to the House floor for a vote.
It's true that success will require the House to walk as well as chew gum, and that undoubtedly poses a challenge. But given the dense political wreckage surrounding it, the people's body can't expect to rise above merely by moving its jaw.