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Are House Republicans planning to pull a fast one on immigration?

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Byron York,Immigration

In the House of Representatives, immigration reform is not only not dead, it's actually the subject of a lot of working and talking as Republicans prepare for their annual retreat this weekend. That much has been clear at least since Speaker John Boehner announced the GOP will come up with a statement of "principles" on immigration reform that might -- or might not -- lead to legislation.

But the Wall Street Journal stirred a lot of interest this weekend when it reported that GOP leaders are hoping to put one over on voters who oppose reform. The plan, the Journal said, is to delay a vote on a bill until after the deadline passes for primary challenges across the country. That way, a GOP lawmaker whose constituents oppose reform could lay low until the coast was clear -- no primary challenge! -- and then vote against his voters' interest. From the Journal:

House leaders hope to bring legislation to the floor as early as April, the people close to the process said, after the deadline has passed in many states for challengers to file paperwork needed to run for Congress. Republican leaders hope that would diminish chances that a lawmaker's support for immigration bills winds up sparking a primary-election fight.

If true, such a GOP strategy would certainly set off a lot of anger among conservative voters. But is it true?

On Sunday I talked and emailed with four sources intimately involved in the immigration matter, and the picture that emerges is yes, some Republicans have discussed delaying action on immigration until after the threat of primary challenges passes. But no, it does not appear that the GOP leadership is planning to do it or is even pushing the idea -- and besides, there is no guarantee at all that Republicans will agree to do anything on immigration, anyway.

First, from the top. "There are a lot of members who think primary dates should be a factor," says one leadership aide. "The Speaker is not one of them." Another leadership aide stresses that "absolutely no" decisions have been made and "I've not heard one word about primary calendars and filing deadlines. That [Wall Street Journal] passage is people projecting their desires."

Yet another aide concedes that the issue has been discussed among the membership, but there's an obvious problem: it's such an obvious maneuver. "If you do it before the primaries, a lot of the members are going to be skittish about doing it before the primaries," the aide says. "They're not going to take the vote. But when you start to say that, then it looks political. So all of these members who are facing primaries are going to be asked, 'What are you going to do?'" The aide notes that if GOP voters believe lawmakers are even thinking about taking action on immigration, they will demand that their representative make some sort of binding pledge, as when many GOP members found themselves under pressure to promise not to vote to raise the debt ceiling. That would be counter-productive for those Republican members who want to pass one or more immigration bills.

Finally, a well-connected strategist calls the primary challenge talk recounted in the Wall Street Journal "painfully blunt" and adds, "I don't know what leadership staff would say that." Even talking about delaying action on immigration in order to foil primary challenges could incite conservatives out in the districts to launch primary challenges.

The strategist stresses that, for all the talk, there's no agreement within the House GOP on what to do about immigration. But there's no question the issue is on the table. "The focus of the retreat is how do we address the economy and jobs," the strategist says. "There are going to be a couple of specific issues that are brought up because they are clearly things that are going to have to be dealt with -- the debt ceiling, health care, and immigration is one of those, as well."

As far as what GOP leadership will propose, the strategist says it's not likely to be anything in particular. "It's not being presented as 'Here's a plan we want you to endorse," the strategist says. "It's more along the lines of, 'Here are some options. Is there any consensus around them?"

No consensus could ultimately mean no action. But it's important to add that the House leadership appears to be leaning toward action on a whole range of issues -- as opposed to simply using control of the House to stop White House and Democratic initiatives. "We have to be the party of alternatives," says the strategist. "The opposition party [strategy] is not the path to success." So in general -- and putting aside the question of waiting until after the primaries -- it appears the House leadership would very much like to do something on immigration. It's just not sure what that something is.

This story was first published at 5:17 a.m.

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