House speaker John Boehner continues to insist that he won’t allow a vote on an immigration-reform bill that doesn’t have the support of a majority of the House GOP caucus. He recently extended that pledge to include any bill that might result from a conference committee — an official, bicameral negotiation that typically occurs when each chamber has passed legislation on the same issue. But opponents of the Senate-passed Gang of Eight bill are still skeptical. “We aren’t concerned about what passes the House, the concern is what passes out of conference,” a conservative GOP aide tells National Review Online. “Once you to go to conference, you lose control of the situation.”
There’s worry among conservatives outside the Capitol, too: Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, says she thinks that “if the House passes anything and it goes to conference, it will come out of conference, and it will be the Senate bill.”
Many feel those concerns are justified, although Boehner’s promise to follow the Hastert rule with any conference bill will help, and he would almost certainly be putting his speakership at risk by breaking his word.
But the speaker told members Wednesday that House Republicans would be “in a much weaker position” if they fail to act on immigration reform; so it would appear that conference remains a possibility. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), a leading member of the House working group on immigration, told the Huffington Post: “I think we’re going to get to conference.” Republican supporters of comprehensive immigration reform are said to be privately lobbying leadership in favor of going to conference.
In fact, a conference committee is one of the many elements of byzantine congressional procedure that lawmakers will have to navigate before an immigration package can proceed to President Obama’s desk. Here are nine issues to be mindful of as the House moves forward on its own reform package and, potentially, proceeds to conference:
Senate majority leader Harry Reid has yet to send the Gang of Eight bill to the House for consideration, meaning House members actually may not have the chance to vote on it even if they were inclined to do so. If the Senate bill did come to the House floor, it would almost certainly encounter a “blue-slip” challenge. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.), among others, has suggested that because the Senate bill raises revenue, it is unconstitutional for it to originate in the Senate, and it cannot be taken up by the House. Republicans could dispense with the Senate bill on these grounds by passing what is known as a “blue-slip resolution.”
If the Senate bill ever made it to the House, and in the unlikely event that it did not encounter a blue-slip challenge (leadership could opt against it), House minority leader Nancy Pelosi could file what is known as a “discharge petition” to force a vote on the bill. She would need to collect 218 signatures, meaning that 17 Republicans would have to agree, and would have to wait until 30 legislative days after the bill was introduced to file. Once the petition is successfully filed, the majority leader must schedule a vote on the floor.
Getting to conference
It’s relatively easy to do — assuming the House passes its own immigration reform package. Either chamber could initiate a conference by taking up the other side’s bill, agreeing to dismiss it, and requesting a conference. It is typically a multi-step process to start a conference, but the House could accomplish much of it simply by passing a rule by majority vote — meaning the rule could pass with mostly Democratic support (it would need a handful of Republicans to sign on). There is no limit to the number of conferees House and Senate leaders could appoint, although the majority parties would have greater representation. In the Senate, the appointment of conferees can be subject to multiple filibusters, but that is unlikely to be a factor on the immigration bill, given that the Gang of Eight’s bill passed with 68 votes.