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Memo to House GOP

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Election Day is almost nine months off. But right now Republicans seem almost certain to hold the House of Representatives and are likely to take the Senate. Which raises the inevitable question: How might the GOP seize defeat from the jaws of victory?

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Two occasions stand out, two obvious obstacles ahead that could lead to disastrous Republican stumbles, two pitfalls on the path to a happy GOP Election Day. Republicans are pretty good at falling into such pits. One is the increase in the debt limit, which Congress will have to deal with in the next month or two. The other is immigration reform, which the Senate has passed and which awaits a decision from the House leadership on how to proceed.

Conservative activists tend to get excited at the prospect of a debt ceiling increase, since it allegedly gives them a rare moment of leverage over the president. There is already a conservative wish list of items that could be attached to the coming debt limit legislation. But as we saw in the somewhat analogous situation of the government shutdown in October, such leverage is often more theoretical than real, especially when you only control one house of Congress and are divided among yourselves in that chamber. With the country and the markets, egged on by the media, spooked by the threat of default, it’s not clear how much “leverage” House Republicans will really have.

So conservative activists should give up their fond hopes of a debt ceiling bonanza and more or less let the hike go through unscathed (they can still vote against it, of course). Conservatives will have plenty of opportunities to try to attach their favorite proposals to must-pass legislation in 2015, if they want to, under more politically favorable circumstances. Meanwhile, during 2014, conservatives certainly can and should aggressively advance freestanding legislative proposals, to repeal and delay parts of Obamacare, for instance, and they’ll be better off with a clean debate on such legislation free of the specter of default.

In return for making life easier on the debt ceiling for the House leadership, Speaker Boehner should make his own concession: He should announce that he will not bring any immigration legislation to the floor this session. If there’s one thing that could blow up GOP chances for a good 2014, it would be an explosive debate over immigration in the House. The only sure way to avoid such a debate is not to let anything onto the floor in the first place. Once even an innocuous-sounding measure gets passed, then the pressure to go to conference with the loathed Senate bill will be great. And whatever ultimately were to happen, activists would spend months worrying about and agitating against a betrayal by the leadership, business interests would spend months urging such a betrayal, and Republicans would be consumed by infighting and recriminations on an issue that does them no short-term political good. Bringing immigration to the floor insures a circular GOP firing squad, instead of a nicely lined-up one shooting together and in unison at Obamacare and other horrors of big government liberalism. Since there really is no need to act this year on immigration, don’t. Don’t even try.

In sum: With respect to the must-pass debt ceiling legislation, the House conservatives should let it pass. With respect to immigration reform, which isn’t must-pass, leadership should let it die. The guiding principle should be do no harm. This year, doing no harm requires both conservative activists and the GOP establishment to sacrifice something. So they should make a deal: No default in return for no amnesty. Such a deal should mean no GOP tears this November.

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