Bob Goodlatte: GOP point man on immigration urges 'regular order'

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte says that wherever the immigration debate winds up, nothing gets done in the end without education and building consensus in committee.

By , Staff writer

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, didn’t get the sexy assignment among Republican lawmakers in fixing the nation’s immigration laws.

While Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho are the public Latino faces fighting the PR battle for an immigration fix, Representative Goodlatte is doing the spadework of making sure that, however the immigration reform debate breaks, House Republicans will be ready.

A 20-year House veteran from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Goodlatte laid out his perspective on the coming immigration reform debate in a half-hour interview with the Monitor on Friday.

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Goodlatte’s goal is to ensure that the long-abandoned committee process for considering legislation is thrumming along robustly so that if bipartisan compromise comes, it will be absorbed into an already-moving process with members already well-educated on the issues.

If bipartisan compromise proves elusive, Goodlatte's efforts will unearth the pieces of immigration reform that House Republicans can support in order to patch as much of the system as possible.

A bipartisan group of eight senators laid out a package of consensus principles in January. A corresponding House group has been locked in closed-door discussions for weeks.

“We want to encourage [the bipartisan groups] to produce a work product. We will take that and then see what additional concerns we have, and we will take that to the broader membership of the House and see what their reaction is to it,” Goodlatte says. “It would be an important development to have either a bipartisan framework or actual bill produced.”

Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio has made it a priority to return as many bills as possible to what members of Congress know as “regular order,” the process by which potential legislation is shaped by lawmakers on its relevant congressional committee before coming to the House floor to face further amendments and, eventually, a vote.

From President Obama’s signature health-care law to a flurry of tax and spending bills proffered by GOP House leaders, among other notable examples, this has not been Congress’s standard operating procedure for years.

On Friday, Goodlatte began that process by holding the first educational session with members of the House Judiciary Committee. The information sessions will expand to all 233 members of the Republican caucus in the weeks to come, Goodlatte says, to make sure that members not only feel a part of the process but also can begin raising the issue with their constituents and chewing it over themselves before being pushed to make a decision on what could be politically explosive and complex immigration reforms.

Goodlatte’s education efforts could be key to whether immigration reform survives in the House, as Speaker Boehner has vowed not to bring bills to the floor that won’t earn votes from more than half the GOP caucus.

“It’s more important to me at this point to educate my members on what immigration is all about,” Goodlatte says. "The average member of Congress does not deal with immigration law.”

Goodlatte, one of three former immigration lawyers on the House Judiciary Committee, certainly has his own views on how immigration reform should look. But playing a key role in listening to his colleagues means avoiding making pronouncements about his own preferences.

“As the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, if I were to say, as [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid said a few weeks ago, ‘[a deal] has to have a pathway to citizenship,’ I would be deconstructing a solution to this problem. That was not a constructive thing,” Goodlatte says.

“If you noticed in the president’s State of the Union [address], when he said we need to do comprehensive immigration reform every member but a handful stood up and applauded that,” he continues. “When he said the specific things, they weren’t there on the Republican side of the aisle standing and applauding.”

Goodlatte did, however, offer a few thoughts on discrete pieces of immigration reform Friday. On overall immigration levels, Goodlatte says he doesn’t believe there’s “anything magical about a particular number” of immigrants to the US, which currently stands at about 1 million new legal permanent residents annually.

The question of how many new legal residents the US admits every year is a key question for several conservative advocacy groups, like Numbers USA, who aim to push that number lower. (Goodlatte is among three dozen lawmakers with an A+ lifetime rating from Numbers.)

While overall immigration levels are a question to be resolved in future negotiations, it's clear he hopes to drive up the percentage of immigrants who are admitted for their skills and education from under 10 percent currently toward the better-than-50 percent levels in Canada and Great Britain.

And he hit a broadly positive note about the state of immigration debate on Capitol Hill today.

“I’m optimistic to the extent that the mood is very much where many, many people both inside and outside the Congress want to do something on this issue. But beyond that, in terms of how broad a package we can put together, I remain to be convinced that there is enough bipartisanship to do it,” Goodlatte says.

“People on both sides are going to have to say, ‘We’re going to find solutions to these problems, both in terms of bringing people who are unlawfully [present] out of the shadows and in terms of making sure that this does not happen again [through border security], ”’ he continues. “Both sides understand that if they give some on each of those, they’ll get a lot from it."

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