As the battle over immigration reform shifts to the House, the Republicans are quickly dividing into two distinctive warring camps.
On one side is a group of hardline conservatives who adamantly oppose any legislation that offers a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, as does the Senate-passed bill. Led by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, they are insisting on a stepped approach that stresses increased border security, an e-Verify system to help employers weed out illegal immigrants and expanded powers for state and local authorities to arrest illegal immigrants. These vocal lawmakers meet any talk about “amnesty” or a path to citizenship with a cold stare.
On the other side is a small handful of pragmatists including Rep. Jeff Denham of California and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida who have flirted with a more comprehensive approach similar to the Senate “Gang of Eight” approach. These lawmakers keep a low profile, but they are being cheered on by former President George W. Bush, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and the influential editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
Caught in the middle is the beleaguered House Speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, who has struggled to placate rank and file members who have repeatedly challenged the Speaker’s leadership.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said earlier this week that he felt sorry for Boehner because the speaker presides over a restive Republican Conference full of “crazies” holding him to a requirement that no controversial measure can be brought to the floor unless a majority of Republicans approve of it. That would virtually preclude any major bill that requires substantial Democratic backing to pass.
In the current climate, that means the Senate-passed bill is dead on arrival. This dynamic was on full display Wednesday afternoon, according to media reports, when House Republicans held a two-and-a-half hour closed door meeting in the basement of the Capitol to thrash out an approach to deal with immigration reform. While Boehner repeatedly warned about the steep price the GOP would pay for inaction, the vast majority of his members came down against the Senate measure or any other comprehensive bill.
Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) stood up and delivered a speech about the dangers of entering into a formal conference negotiation with the Senate, according to Politico. He and other conservatives are worried that the House will be forced to accept the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” Senate bill if they engage in talks.
“’Comprehensive’ has always been a swear word in the House of Representatives, but having a step-by-step approach that deals with the issue comprehensively, I don’t think that’s dead,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a Hispanic lawmaker who until recently had been part of a bipartisan group in the House working towards a broad immigration proposal, The New York Times reported.
After the meeting, Boehner and other leaders issued a statement declaring that the Obama administration “cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate.”
Instead, House Republicans intend to spend the summer and fall promoting at least four separate bills designed to beef up border security, grant states the power to enact and enforce tough new immigration laws, expand the availability of agricultural guest worker visas, and give employers two years to start using e-Verify for all hires.
But Boehner is mindful of the political risks that House Republicans run if they completely turn their backs on a national drive for immigration reform -- something that would further alienate the increasingly potent bloc of Hispanic voters.
Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., are attempting to balance the parochial interests and political needs of their members against a compelling argument for legislation to finally resolve the status of millions of illegal immigrants living in the shadows.
The drive for comprehensive legislation drew significant Republican support in the Senate from John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, among others. And it has enjoyed strong backing from leading business groups, anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, and evangelical Christians. Shortly before the House Republicans met yesterday afternoon, former President Bush added his support for immigration reform during a naturalization ceremony at his new presidential center outside Dallas. Bush said he has long believed it was necessary to overhaul the system in a way that is similar to the Senate-passed blue print.
“The laws governing the immigration system aren’t working,” Bush said. “The system is broken. We’re now in an important debate in reforming those laws. And that’s good.”
Bush failed during his two terms as president to enact comprehensive immigration reform. And the former president carries little sway with conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill or within the national party. Yet Bush’s decision to return to public life and voice his views on immigration reform could have some influence on the margins.
At the same time, the Wall Street Journal editorial page – a repository of conservative establishment thinking – is relentlessly attempting to chip away at House Republican resistance to a comprehensive reform plan.
“The dumbest strategy is to follow the Steve King anti-immigration caucus and simply let the Senate bill die while further militarizing the border,” The Journal editorial page thundered on Wednesday. “This may please the loudest voices on talk radio, but it ignores the millions of evangelical Christians, Catholic conservatives, business owners and free-marketers who support reform. The GOP can support a true conservative opportunity society or become a party of closed minds and borders.”
But House Republicans, who hold a 234-201 majority over Democrats, gave no indication of fast action on a major bill.
"It is going to be a process of months, not days or weeks," Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told Reuters after Wednesday's meeting. "I don't see anything until late this year or early next year. It is going to take that long; it is going to be that big of a debate," Cole added, referring to tough bargaining with the Senate.
The Fiscal Times’ Brianna Ehley contributed to this report.