“What it means to me is it’s an issue we have to address. I don’t think we need to address it comprehensively, like the Senate has,” said Representative Dennis Ross, an old friend of Senator Marco Rubio’s from the Florida statehouse.
Even Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, is lukewarm on the idea of a comprehensive bill, saying the piece-by-piece approach could build momentum by enlisting the participation of different parts of the GOP conference. “The big question for us is, are there 218 votes for whatever it is that’s put on the floor. That’s an open question,” he said.
So, the Senate bill is dead on arrival. But everything else is surprisingly wide open. One of the biggest debates is about process, with Judiciary chairman Goodlatte leading a piece-by-piece approach and a secretive bipartisan “gang” of seven lawmakers negotiating a big, comprehensive bill. House leadership is currently backing Goodlatte’s piecemeal approach, in which individual bills that tackle certain parts of the immigration system pass by themselves.
Last week, Goodlatte approved two bills out of committee, an interior enforcement bill and an agricultural guest-worker program. This week, he is moving one bill to expand E-Verify nationwide and to reform the high-skill-visa system. The House gang, which has said for months that it is on the cusp of releasing its bill, has quietly built up a fairly broad base of House Republicans who are intrigued by its design, as described in closed-door meetings.
The crucial trigger structure of the bill is designed so that there are basically two tracks running alongside each other: an enforcement track and a legalization track. Delays on the enforcement track halt the legalization track.
“There is a short period of time where there is no track but border security. After that it goes to two tracks. E-Verify is one trigger; if it’s not implemented, poof! They go back to illegal,” says Representative John Carter of Texas, one of the GOP gang members.
That sounds a lot more substantial than the Senate bill, but it’s likely to run into a lot of skepticism from top immigration hawks like Representative Steve King of Iowa who believe that once granted, legalization could never be rescinded. “The permit’s gonna expire in six years and then, what, ICE is going to come by and pick you up and send you home?” he says about the Senate bill. “No — they wouldn’t do it now. They can’t do it now.”
The gang is currently reviewing its bill line by line, which a GOP aide says uncovered a bunch of drafting problems. But one of its biggest hurdles will be winning the fight to move it as a single bill. For instance, Representative Paul Ryan, perhaps the most important cheerleader for immigration in the House and a key gang supporter, says that although he supports the gang’s work, he’s pushing for a piecemeal approach.
“I think we should break it up. I’ve always said that to the House gang, too. I think the House gang, they’re going to put together a framework, they’re going to put together policies, but I think it’s smarter to have each piece considered, instead of one big bill,” Ryan says.
Ryan has been meeting individually with Republicans about the House gang’s bill, but hasn’t been to any of their meetings and isn’t otherwise part of the negotiations.
Leadership aides and key lawmakers say the first piecemeal immigration bill, on enforcement, is likely to come to the House floor before the August recess. But the whole process could end up delayed as the fall months become consumed with budget debates, says Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma.