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Speaker John Boehner needs to lead on immigration

Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks during

Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks during a weekly press briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, (June 27, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

The immigration battle shifts to the House of Representatives on Monday, giving Republicans a chance to wrest control of their party away from its uncompromising right wing. They should seize the moment. Unless they do, reform will be doomed, and the nation could remain saddled with a mess of an immigration system for decades to come.

That would be an important opportunity lost for some traditional GOP interest groups, including defense contractors, farmers, tech companies, retailers and employers generally, which stand to gain from reforms that would meet their workforce needs and strengthen the nation's economy. Those interests should press House Republicans to embrace pragmatism, compromise and progress on immigration.

House Republicans are united against a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, at least unless the border is first sealed impossibly tight. Their security-only approach will be difficult to reconcile with the plan the Senate passed last month, calling not just for unprecedented fortification of the border, but also new and expanded visas and an arduous path to citizenship. That's the kind of broad fix the broken system needs.

It's been 27 years since Congress last passed legislation reforming immigration. Millions of immigrants got legal status, but the border was never adequately secured. That must not happen again.

But it could be decades more before the nation gets this close to reform again if Speaker John Boehner keeps his pledge to abide by the "Hastert rule," which means refusing to bring any bill to the floor that isn't supported by a majority of House Republicans. No comprehensive reform will pass that test. Too many House Republicans represent deeply red districts where immigration is unpopular, and where they would risk a primary challenge from the right if they voted for broad reform.

But that focus on 2014 puts them at odds with Republicans who believe the party's opposition to immigration reform prompted seven in 10 Latino voters to cast ballots for Barack Obama in 2012, and could cost Republicans the White House again in 2016.

For the nation to have any chance of getting an immigration system that works, Boehner will have to walk away from the Hastert rule -- named for former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert -- and allow an opportunity for a bipartisan majority to coalesce.

Those GOP interests that stand to profit from reform that creates or expands visas important to their industries should nudge Boehner in that direction. That's the only way they will get access to an increased supply of employees with advanced degrees in science, math, technology and engineering; and employees with extraordinary abilities, such as professors or researchers or multinational executives. Reform would also ensure an adequate supply of farm workers and make sure the nation stops turning away job-creating entrepreneurs. And defense contractors have to be drooling over the possibility of billions of dollars in new spending for helicopters, drones, motion sensors and other technology that the Senate bill mandates to secure the border.

Abandoning his Hastert rule pledge could cost Boehner the speaker's gavel. That's a lot to sacrifice. But being the leader is meaningless if no one is following and none of the nation's important business gets done.