Luis Gutierrez: pivot man on House immigration 'gang'

How the Illinois Democrat and others work in groups behind closed doors as part of the new dealmaking in Congress. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
US Representative Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., works in his office on Capitol Hill, on March 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Gutierrez is the first Latino elected to Congress from the Midwest. He took office in 1993 and is recognized as one of the top Latino elected officials in the US. He is also considered a dealmaker because of his ability to work across party lines.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) is a blunt liberal from Chicago with an activist's bent.

The first Hispanic elected to Congress from Illinois more than 20 years ago, Mr. Gutierrez once famously got into a shoving match with Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, for many years the right's poster boy for hard-line immigration policies, after a broadcast appearance.

And it's not just conservatives who have felt his rebuke. Gutierrez has been an unrepentant critic of President Obama's record of deporting the most undocumented immigrants of any chief executive in history.

Yet the fiery Gutierrez is also the House's leading immigration negotiator. He cosponsored a comprehensive immigration package in the mid-2000s. Now his consensus-building skills are being tested as he leads a bipartisan group in the House on his signature issue once again – immigration reform, the 2013 version.

Gutierrez will be key to whether any compromise on the volatile issue makes it through Congress this year. In the Senate, a group of eight lawmakers is working on immigration reform, too. They will likely put forward their bill first. But for any deal to pass, it will have to survive the GOP-held House, which has thwarted numerous attempts at rewriting the nation's immigration laws in the past. Thus Gutierrez and his band of about a dozen lawmakers may have the last word – or at least the loudest – on any package that ultimately emerges.

The House group represents one way that compromise is reached in the poisonous atmosphere of Congress: through bipartisan gangs that operate behind closed doors. It's often the only way to build the trust necessary to tackle sensitive political issues.

"It's important to be able to talk to your colleagues openly, without fear," says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida, who is participating in the immigration talks. "This is a partisan place, and it's such a 'got you' atmosphere that one word used out of place will be used to try to go after folks."

The work of such groups is often a route around the normal legislative process, infuriating committee leaders and creating objections to bills on procedural grounds. But that's not the case with the House immigration clique.

Its members have worked hard to keep top Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration matters, aware of their work. "I've had conversations with a great many of them about it, and we want to encourage them to produce a work product," says Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, the Judiciary Committee chairman.

For now, the loquacious Gutierrez and other key colleagues in the group, including Reps. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho and Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, are keen on adhering to the proper political etiquette of working in a cross-aisle gang. "I've been careful to adhere to the first rule of working in a bipartisan secret group: Don't talk about the secret group," Gutierrez said at a recent Monitor Breakfast.

While the lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent often clashes with Republicans on a wide variety of issues, he is willing to reach out when he feels his opponents want to compromise to get something done.

"If you have an opportunity to solve a problem," he says, "you're an idiot if you don't change the manner in which you treat your opposition when your opposition has said, 'You know what? I want to work this out.' "

And on immigration, many Republicans, after eyeing the results of the 2012 election, do want to work something out. But others remain opposed to a bill perceived as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. So the House group is moving gingerly behind closed doors, where the search for common ground is creating some unusual bonds.

Gutierrez, a onetime cabdriver and social worker from Chicago, has formed a close relationship with Mr. Labrador, a fiscally conservative Mormon who was elected in the tea party class of 2010. Gutierrez says Labrador is one of his closest friends on the Hill.

Gutierrez has a longstanding friendship, too, with Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, another integral player in the House immigration talks. Before the election last year, Gutierrez and Mr. Ryan bumped into each other in the House gym. "I'm going to do everything I can to beat you," Gutierrez says he told Ryan. "But if you win, you're still going to take my calls, right?"

Ryan laughed and promised to call Gutierrez right away to get an immigration bill going.

"Bipartisanship is sometimes even just a rekindling of old friendships and old alliances because the opportunity and the moment is ripe," says Gutierrez. "This is the moment to get it done."

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