House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave a big speech a few months ago in which he ostentatiously set a new tone for House Republicans. Both parties, he said, needed "to put differences aside" to make Washington work.
Yesterday, Cantor's House troops delivered a retort. It turns out they're not much interested in putting aside any differences, thank you very much, and won't be requiring more etiquette lessons. Yes, Republicans killed their own leader's "Helping Sick Americans Now Act." And they killed it even though the bill, which promised a high-risk insurance pool for people with pre-existing conditions, was a free vote with no chance of being enacted. In other words, House Republicans refused even to pretend that they care about the uninsured. In the process, they signaled just how difficult immigration reform will be.
The success of immigration reform depends on Republican support, which depends, in turn, on Republicans accepting its political logic. As Senator Marco Rubio has said, immigration is a "gateway" issue for Hispanic voters. By removing immigration from the list of contested issues, Republican leaders hope one day to walk through that gate to the promised land of Hispanic (and Asian) votes.
There's little evidence that rank-and-file House Republicans, or some of their ideological brethren in the Senate, share that goal. They have criteria of their own for action: Does the action boldly oppose President Barack Obama? Does it shrink the size or prestige of government? Does it cut taxes? Is it cathartic?
The dozens of House votes to repeal Obamacare -- and demands for more of the same -- meet the criteria. Sequestration? Check. Ideological goose chases on Benghazi, Libya and Fast and Furious? Check.
By contrast, immigration reform has limited appeal. First, Obama supports it. This is a major hurdle, perhaps an insurmountable one. In addition, reform does nothing to shrink or disable government. (It actually expands it, albeit with a militarized border that many conservatives support.)
Border control is the bait designed to entice conservatives. Recognizing this, Rubio and other supporters emphasize border security constantly, sometimes to comic effect. (In a new ad, Rubio lauds "the toughest enforcement measures in the history of the United States, potentially in the world." It's impossible to overstate the shame this will induce in North Korea.)
But it's going to be difficult to keep conservative attention trained on border security. As the debate unfolds, it's bound to drift to the legalization of about 11 million undocumented immigrants, aka the dreaded "amnesty."
House Republicans will be very tempted to ignore their leadership and kill immigration reform. House Speaker John Boehner won't want to, but if he feels the legislation is going down, he has a convenient ejection seat: the delicate agreement between labor and business over temporary workers. If Republicans alter the guest-worker terms enough to turn labor against the bill, they can blame the bill's collapse on intransigent unions.
That result will likely infuriate Hispanics and doom Republican presidential candidates for years to come. But it will make Obama mad. Check.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)