Comprehensive Rejection

by Jonathan Strong
House Republicans give the Senate’s immigration bill short shrift.

Perhaps the one thing that’s certain about the House of Representatives and immigration is that the bill that just passed the Senate could never, ever pass the House. Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate how little regard Republicans there have for it, even with the border-security amendment added by Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven.“Just like all the senators, I haven’t read it yet,” quips Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. The House should “fold it up into a paper airplane and throw it out the window. Oh, is that not the right answer?” jokes Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. “The Senate is, at this point, irrelevant,” observes Representative Ted Poe of Texas, the chairman of the House immigration caucus.

“If you think that the House is going to cave and bring up the Senate bill,” Representative Devin Nunes of California says, “that is idiotic. Anyone who pushes that is just ultimately trying to kill immigration reform.”

Chief deputy whip Peter Roskam of Illinois is certain that the House would never take up the Gang of 8’s bill in its present form. “It just won’t happen. It is a pipe dream to think that that bill is going to the floor and be voted on,” he said at a breakfast Thursday hosted by National Review.

“Do we still have a bicameral government?” wonders Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the chairman of the immigration subcommittee. “You’re a smart guy. Let’s walk through this together. We do not have a unicameral system of government. We can assume the framers did that on purpose. And we can assume they did it for a reason. What do you think the reason is?” Gowdy asks.

You might think Corker-Hoeven, with its billions of dollars to bolster border security, would be receiving a warm welcome in the House. You would be wrong. “The Corker-Hoeven amendment is terrible,” says Representative John Fleming, a top immigration hawk.

Representative Michael Grimm, who represents a purple Staten Island district in New York, pans it, too. “There’s no triggers,” he says. “More work on the border is good but it doesn’t solve all the problems with that bill,” says House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.

The single biggest criticism about the Senate bill is on its relatively toothless trigger structure. Almost all House Republicans say they want legislation that demonstrably enforces the law before legalization is given to millions of illegal immigrants. The Senate bill legalizes everyone at the start and then includes relatively soft triggers on enforcement in order for the path to citizenship to commence.

Crucially, as the months have passed since Election Day, the sense of Republican panic that drove a lot of the early progress on immigration is fading.

“I think this is my biggest frustration with the Republican party right now, is that we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off thinking that we have to do this for political reasons,” Representative Raúl Labrador of Idaho told reporters at an event Wendesday. “We don’t have to do this for political reasons. . . . If we start pandering and giving out goodies to people, then we’re going to get into a bidding war with the Democratic party. And if we get into a bidding war, we always lose, because the Democrats are always more willing to give goodies to certain groups than we are.”

If you’re rooting for the Senate bill, about the best you’ll get out of a Republican member of the House is that it does create some pressure for the House to pass its own bill, which probably won’t include a path to citizenship.

“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.

That leaves a lot of time for the public to digest the Senate bill. Optimists like Nunes say that could ease concerns about the bill.

“I feel the longer this sits out, which is unusual for Washington, the better off we’re all going to be. I think this needs to sit out, the American people need to see it, they need to read it, they need to assess it, they need to see if it would work,” he says. “What the Senate is doing is like textbook 101, how to tick off the American people and rile everybody up.”

King paints another picture. “If the House simply says, ‘Let this thing cook for a little while,’ then the public will look at that Senate bill and they’ll start to see the holes in the Corker fig-leaf amendment. . . . It could sink on its way over here, by the time the public eye sees what they’ve really done over there,” he says.

And all of that happens before the House even goes to conference with the Senate, where the true end game would take place.

Speaker John Boehner said at a press conference today that for “any legislation — including a conference report — to pass the House, it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members.”

But even if Boehner wanted to try passing a bill in violation of this so-called Hastert rule, it would cause an internal fight that he would probably lose. The right flank of the conference is too worked up about immigration, too on guard. Consider this: Ryan, the House’s Rubio, said he “absolutely” thinks it’s important for the Hastert rule to be followed for the final, conferenced bill.

Liberal pundits point to the fiscal-cliff bill, passed in haste on New Year’s Day in violation of the Hastert rule, but it isn’t a good comparison point, Republicans point out. “This is a little different. We had to deal with the end-of-year taxes, Sandy, there was an immediacy, an imperative. There’s not that immediacy or that problem of a looming deadline,” Dent says.

For anything to be enacted into law, then, it’s probably going to need to be far to the right of the Senate bill, which prompts the question of whether Senate Democrats and President Obama would be willing to approve it. Signs are it’s unlikely.

Asked about House Republican criticisms of Corker-Hoeven, Senate majority whip Dick Durbin laughs heartily.

“The tenth-largest land army in the world? On the border? 40,000 troops and maybe a navy on top of it? Just not enough? You reach a point where you say, this isn’t about the border. The border’s an excuse. They just want to vote no,” he says.

There is mistrust on both sides. Roskam warned darkly that Obama, set on winning back the House in 2014, could be preparing to use the issue to attack Republicans. With Obamacare implementation set to be a disaster, scandals brewing, and the NSA-leaks issue hamstringing him on foreign policy, immigration is an issue he’s used effectively in the past that he might fall back on again, he says.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @j_strong.