Immigration reform: House GOP consensus is to do something – but later

House Republicans emerged from a strategy session on immigration reform saying something needed to be done but seeming content to shelve the issue until the fall. What to do is still an issue.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., speaks with reporters after House Republicans worked on an approach to immigration reform in a closed-door meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday.

House Republicans emerging Wednesday from a two-hour, closed-door, conference-wide strategy session on Capitol Hill’s most pressing subject, immigration reform, said there was agreement that they would continue to work on the issue, but not nearly at the pace sought by the White House or the Senate.

Seeming content to shelve the issue until the fall session, the Republican lawmakers said the solution they eventually would craft would come in smaller legislative chunks and carry deeper conservative influence than the Senate’s comprehensive bill that passed with bipartisan support at the end of June.

The lawmakers also stressed that beefed up border security and interior immigration enforcement measures would have to come before any legalization for any group among the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But the Republicans, who heard presentations from Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, stressed nevertheless that there was broad agreement that something should be done.

“There was a consensus that people want to do something about this issue, that this issue has been on the table for too long,” says Rep. Lou Barletta (R) of Pennsylvania, an immigration hardliner. “There’s an overwhelming agreement that we do border security first and then do everything else.”

But whatever package the Republicans craft, it just won’t come as fast as the White House or Senate immigration reformers want.

It’s “100 percent unlikely” that the House will move immigration legislation before the August recess, says Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana.

“We want to keep forward motion, but we don’t feel like we have to pass something in the next few weeks,” Representative Fleming says. “We’re going to go back home and talk to our constituents in August.”

Republicans are facing a tortuous path to actually passing immigration legislation, however.

On the one hand, they don’t want to allow inaction to give any leverage to President Obama and the majority Democrat Senate.

“If we don’t pass anything, that’s just going to let the Senate dominate, and that’s just not a good policy,” says Doug Lamborn (R) of Colorado.

But on the other, Republicans need time to figure out what, exactly, they support.

The House Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees have passed a series of pieces of the immigration reform puzzle and roughly half the conference, according to House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, have come to education sessions on immigration.

But beyond vague requirements of more and faster border security than the Senate bill envisions, Republicans were clear that there was little attempt to find a consensus on policy Wednesday. After the presentations by Speaker Boehner and Congressman Ryan, several dozen lawmakers rose to address their colleagues for all of 90 seconds each.

Left unanswered in the half-dozen bills Republicans have passed so far is whether the nation’s undocumented population will be allowed some way to adjust their legal status. A so-called pathway to citizenship for those in the US illegally is an absolute must-have for Democrats and Mr. Obama.  

“If the House group has a pathway to citizenship even if it’s different than ours, it may be more stringent, we can look at that,” says Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, “but without a path to citizenship, I don’t see how you get anywhere, in the House or in Congress.”

Republicans may still get to some form of legalization, says Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, but there’s no consensus on the matter as of yet. “That’s something that will be hard to get to, but I can see us getting there,” he says.

Alluding to what many consider the eventual need to bring Democrats on board to pass some immigration measures in the House, Representative Labrador continued: “Hopefully Democrats will join us to see that it is better to get something than nothing” on legal status for the undocumented and other issues.

But passing whatever it is most Republicans end up favoring out of the House will not be easy, either.

The problem, Democrats fear, is that immigration reform is just like other Republican quandries on the farm bill, the fiscal cliff, and other issues, where House GOP leaders struggle to get their troops to line up behind any measure in significant numbers.

“There’s a sina qua non of leadership ...  and that’s followership,” says House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland. “I think Mr. Boehner is having a great difficulty finding followers.”

And so Democrats, whose votes proved critical to passing (or, in the farm bill’s case, killing) several major initiatives, think that Boehner will eventually come hat-in-hand to ask for a Democratic boost for immigration reform measures, although all of the focus on Wednesday was on finding measures that more than half the GOP conference could potentially support.

If Republicans were able to pass a series of bills with only conservative votes, “that would be great, because we have to get it done, but I just don’t see them doing that,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D) of California, a long-time immigration negotiator and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House. “Which means they are going to have to reach across the aisle the way most Americans would expect them to and get this done. If they do reach across the aisle, they will know we are willing to cooperate.”

But every Democratic vote needed may require a concession that shaves a Republican vote, putting House GOP leaders in a devilish spot.

For now, however, Republicans are content to just shelve the issue.

Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma points out that the House has student loans and the farm bill on the immediate horizon, followed by the August recess. When lawmakers reconvene in September, they will have only weeks to head off a government shutdown and then begin always-contentious fiscal talks ahead of the federal government once again hitting its borrowing limit.

Those issues have “real triggers, real dates, real consequences,” Cole says, and will all have to be dealt with before the House turns its full attention to immigration.

In part, the slow-and-steady approach stems from the fact that House Republicans simply don’t have the same pressure back home to handle immigration reform.

In total, only 38 House Republicans represent districts where Latinos make up more than 20 percent of the population, according to tabulations by the Wall Street Journal and others. Democrats aren’t exactly able to ratchet up the heat on many of their GOP foes. Just 28 of the GOP’s 234 seats are considered politically competitive, according to the Cook Political Report’s rankings of potential congressional races.

But having more time to operate is a good thing, in Cole’s mind, because it gives House Republicans time to build on Wednesday’s special conference in the service of passing legislation – even if it takes a while.

“Doing nothing is not an option. We have a problem the American people believe is a very important problem. It’s incumbent upon us, if we’re in the majority, to produce something to deal with that. The idea of thinking you can stick your head in the sand and the problem is going to go away is not realistic,” Cole says. “It’s politically very counterproductive, and in a policy sense it’s an abdication of your responsibility as the majority party in the chamber.”

“We need to produce a bill or a series of bills that we can go to conference with the Senate,” he concluded, “and then see where we’re at.”

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