Opening the special, closed-door conference meeting, Speaker John Boehner told Republicans to look him in the eye as he said it one more time: We are not going to take up the Senate bill, and before we take up a vote on any bill or conference report on immigration, we will follow the Hastert Rule: A majority of the majority would be required on any bill or conference report on immigration.
But he was just as adamant in the other direction, too. Doing nothing would leave us vulnerable to a giant attack, he told GOP lawmakers, adding that leaving the system broken would mean not doing everything we can to help the economy.
The message was clear to Representative Walter Jones: “We’ve got to do something.”
After majority leader Eric Cantor echoed Boehner’s two-pronged approach — what’s known as the Hastert Rule — Representative Michael McCaul then presented what “something” might look like, detailing his border-security legislation and outlining plans to host three congressional delegations to the Southwest border: one each in Arizona, Texas, and California. Representative Bob Goodlatte described the four bills his Judiciary Committee has reported, enlisting the immigration-subcommittee chairman, Trey Gowdy, to explain the interior-enforcement legislation and help him answer questions.
Meanwhile, outside the room, reporters waited in the small, dank hallway in the Capitol basement. Since the meeting had been hyped for weeks, the number of media representatives increased dramatically compared with the two or three hardened hacks who might normally stake out a conference meeting.
As the temperature rose, the details of the meeting started to leak out on Twitter. GOP leadership aides in the room took notice and worried that someone was letting reporters listen to the meeting live by phone.
Aides to conference chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose job responsibility includes hosting such meetings, told her that “there was a phone on speaker broadcasting [the meeting],” McMorris Rodgers recalled to me.
She rose to warn Republicans, according to a lawmaker in the room, saying, “Whoever is broadcasting to the world our confidential conversation should stop it.” Someone quipped that they should enlist the NSA to track down the culprit. But the episode set off ripples of distrust in the room, and McMorris Rodgers’s warning seemed to put a damper on the remarks of lawmakers as they left the meeting.
Several GOP leadership aides involved in the matter later said there was no evidence that anyone was “broadcasting” the meeting, but people were suspicious because details of the meeting leaked very quickly.
In any event, lawmakers flocked to the room’s two microphones as the meeting opened up to general comment, with 15 to 20 Republicans lined up at each microphone, prompting McMorris Rodgers to institute a 90-second limit to comments. This was the most crucial part of the meeting, although reaching some kind of consensus was never the meeting’s goal. Lawmakers did not comment on, for example, the timing of any portion of the piece-by-piece immigration bills. But Boehner, Cantor, and whip Kevin McCarthy took careful note of who said what.
Later, Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama recited two lines from “America the Beautiful” to underscore the importance of the rule of law. As he walked through the media horde in the hall, he retrieved the printed-out lyrics from his briefcase to repeat which lines he had cited precisely: “Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law.”
Brooks said he will oppose “anything that rewards or ratifies illegal conduct.”
Representative Jeff Denham of California, in contrast, told colleagues that they must act to pass a comprehensive bill: No excuses, it’s time for action, he said. But the Senate bill is a no-go: Denham specified that Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano could not be the one to certify the security of our border.
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan also spoke, making an economic and demographic case for immigration, lawmakers said. Ryan said that as population growth slows, the country will need working immigrants to pay for entitlement programs, and he underscored that doing nothing is not an option.
Representative Tom Cotton of Arkansas spoke immediately after Ryan, going back and forth with Boehner to discuss the danger of engaging in a conference committee with the Senate. Cotton and others fear that a conference could put enormous pressure on the House to back something close to the Senate bill, which would otherwise be dead on arrival in the lower chamber.
Boehner committed to appointing conferees that “would accurately reflect the will of the Republican conference,” according to Representative John Fleming of Louisiana.
That wasn’t nearly enough for Fleming and other critics, though. “How do you hold somebody accountable for that?” he asked. “That’s a very vague . . . a very nondescript and subjective thing. I would feel much better if I actually knew who was going to be on that conference committee.” Representative Steve King, the leading immigration hawk in the House, told me he was concerned overall at the number of Republicans who spoke in favor of a comprehensive bill.
“There were a greater number of people who agreed with me who stayed in their chairs than I thought would,” he said in a phone interview after the meeting. And more of the “legalize-slash-amnesty-citizenship people stepped up to the microphone than I thought there would be,” King noted, wondering if perhaps they had been encouraged to do so.
King was the one who forced the meeting to occur by gathering 50 signatures under an obscure internal GOP party rule that allows such a maneuver. But he had the darndest time getting leadership to admit it was his letter that had prompted the session. When it was first announced in June, a senior GOP aide said the meeting had been in the works for “several weeks.” This comment threw cold water on the notion that King’s letter was behind the meeting, although he had publicized the effort in an interview with National Review Online two days earlier. In the weeks that followed, King tried to get McMorris Rodgers to clarify why exactly the session had been called. It was only last night that McMorris Rodgers confirmed that King’s letter had prompted the meeting.
Like the rumor about someone broadcasting the meeting via their phone, other signs of deep distrust between the GOP leadership and the conference’s right flank surfaced in the days leading up to the meeting. Representative Louie Gohmert, for example, was angry Tuesday when he heard that only a list of pre-approved speakers would be allowed to talk at the meeting. That turned out not to be true. Other rumors, such as the warning that the meeting would last only one hour, persisted as lawmakers headed into what would in fact be a two-hour meeting.
What’s more, Republicans on both sides of the issue were holding secretive meetings prior to the event. King had hosted four or five meetings in his office and learned of separate meetings Monday and Tuesday night for those favoring a comprehensive bill. GOP consultant Frank Luntz also made an appearance at a Wednesday-morning meeting that was billed as a session on how to prepare for August’s town-hall meetings. Notably, there was no real discussion about a bill contemplated by a secretive bipartisan “gang of seven” in the House. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of this group, said their bill was only briefly mentioned, and no one made any formal presentation of any kind on it.
The meeting, as it turned out, served only to highlight just how deeply split House Republicans are on immigration reform. They’re undecided on many fronts — every front, that is, except the Hastert Rule, which continues to rule the day.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @j_strong.