Immigration reform: Why are House Republicans poised to act now?

Immigration reform is a tough issue for House Republicans, who see the need to expand their reach but also could face a conservative backlash. For now, the 'act now' faction is on the offensive.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio talks with reporters at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington Tuesday. He'll bring immigration reform principles before a retreat of GOP lawmakers this week.

This week could be a definitive one for immigration reform in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, where the issue has ground to a standstill.

House Republicans, now on their annual retreat, will reportedly consider on Thursday afternoon a path to legal status, but not citizenship, for some 11 million immigrants living in the US illegally. If the House were to move forward on the idea – one of several "principles" the Republicans are discussing – that could mark a key step toward taking immigration reform over the finish line this year.

Of course, definitive moments on this issue have come and gone before. First, Republicans took a beating from Latino voters in the 2012 presidential election. Then last year the Senate approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill with a broad, bipartisan majority. Yet House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio never brought anything to the House floor for a vote.

So the question is: Why return to immigration reform now?

That question divides House Republicans and could have an effect on how this fall's midterm elections play out.

Some Republicans say the House is simply picking up where it left off last year. The House, they say, actually did a lot on immigration reform in 2013 – including hearings, passing several bills on different aspects of reform, and holding bipartisan negotiations – but events intervened. The government shutdown, a budget deadline, and the Republican desire to make "Obamacare" a singular focus all pushed immigration reform off the 2013 calendar.

Now, with the legislative decks relatively clear, House Republicans in the "move now" faction are pushing ahead. For these Republicans, the urgency to pass immigration reform comes down to three main factors:

Demographics. The GOP must make inroads among Hispanics, as well as Asians, if it wants to win back the White House or be competitive in a number of states, many say. That was the lesson of 2012.

Business. Pressure is building from the business community, particularly the US Chamber of Commerce, which wants immigration reform as a job creator, growth engine, and deficit reducer.

Reform is overdue. Given that the issue has gone years without resolution, the need for a solution is growing. “The bottom line is, we get paid to make tough decisions and you can’t keep putting these things off,” says Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, who is also chief of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the House. “It’s a problem in my district that needs resolution from a lot of different angles. It’s a problem throughout the country.”

Feeling bruised by the partial government shutdown in September, some Republicans may also welcome a legislative achievement that will help them counter an obstructionist image. If Republicans do nothing this year and wait until, say, 2015, Democrats will pound them relentlessly ahead of this fall's midterm elections.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois asks: “Does anyone really think the Senate’s going to come back next year and go through that torturous process [of 2013] all over again? So I think now’s the moment.”

Other Republicans say now is clearly the wrong time for immigration reform.

Midterms are about exciting the base to turn out in a nonpresidential election year. For many Republicans in gerrymandered House districts, the Latino vote is not a pressing issue. Incumbents are unlikely to contend with a wave of Latino GOP primary voters; they’re more worried about fending off conservative challengers.

And the conservative base is unhappy with the direction of the House, which passed a costly spending bill in January and a farm bill Wednesday, notes Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group that opposes both legal- and citizenship-status for people living in the US illegally.

Immigration reform would just be one more morale-buster for conservatives, who object to a "pathway” to either legal status or citizenship, he says. They consider both to be “amnesty” – putting those who broke the law ahead of those who want to enter the country legally, and ahead of jobless Americans.

Attempt immigration reform this year, Mr. Holler and others warn, and just watch the GOP self-destruct in disagreement and then blow its chance to stay on message about Obamacare – perhaps even endangering the possibility of retaking the US Senate, where Republicans need to net six seats.

Last year, Holler says, “We were told that the [House] leadership’s not going to do anything on immigration reform, because that’s going to distract from Obamacare.” This week’s resurgence of the issue “is obviously a pretty stark change from that.”

This schism is what faces Mr. Boehner when he brings his list of principles before his conference for a discussion Thursday. He, personally, would like to get immigration reform done. The compromise of legal status, instead of citizenship, is an indication that he’s serious about negotiating a deal, within his party and with Democrats. It's a price that Democrats would probably – reluctantly – pay, if it meant saving the rest of reform.

The question is, what price will Boehner be willing to pay, both within his House Republican rank-and-file and at the ballot box?

This week, he might move closer to giving a definitive answer.

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