Opponents of the Senate Gang of Eight legislation have long been wary of the House leadership’s intentions with respect to immigration reform. They are perhaps even more skeptical now that proponents are already downplaying the odds of success.
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), one of the most prominent GOP advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that reform’s prospects were “clearly in doubt.”
Opponents of comprehensive reform say they have reason to suspect a ruse. For example, the fate of the Gang of Eight legislation was frequently called into question, even though its eventual passage (requiring only one GOP vote in addition to the four Republican Gang members) was all but assured.
Republicans delivered 14 votes for the legislation after what opponents described as a manufactured panic over a lack of border security, which was eventually resolved by an amendment to double the existing number of Border Patrol agents, an increase that the union representing those agents does not think it has the capacity to take on. Senate Democrats were also said to be divided on the issue, but when the bill did pass in June 2013, they backed in unanimously.
Since then, reform has been pronounced dead on numerous occasions. House GOP leaders said they wouldn’t take up the issue in 2013, and proponents considered the likelihood of tackling it during an election year to be almost zero. Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei wrote in September that action on immigration reform was likely dead until 2017.
Immigration reform was declared dead in November after House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) ruled out entering a conference committee with the Senate. However, the issue was revived once again at last week’s House GOP retreat in Cambridge, Md., where party leaders unveiled a set of principles for reform that could pave the way for House legislation and an eventual compromise with the Senate. By doing so, they have at least signaled their intention to act and have raised expectations among reform proponents, even if Boehner remains opposed to a conference with the Senate.
That is why reform skeptics are unfazed by notes of caution from people like Ryan. “Nobody opposed to the Senate bill is taking these so-called principles lightly,” says Dan Holler, communication director for Heritage Action. “If you put out these principles and are willing to divide the party over this issue, you don’t do that unless you’re willing to move.”
Representative John Fleming (R., La.) says that many House Republicans are more skeptical of pursuing immigration reform after watching the issue play out in the Senate, where the legislative process was reminiscent of Obamacare, and promises of a “border security first” approach were not fulfilled. These members also watched as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the Gang of Eight’s most prominent GOP member, was hammered in the polls for supporting the bill.border-se
“What happened in the Senate has created more opposition in the House,” Fleming says. “It created a chill in the House, for anybody who maybe was open to some form of compromise. We saw how bad legislation could be created.”
Representative Mo Brooks (R., Ala.), who has rallied a number of House Republicans against comprehensive immigration reform on populist grounds, says the Senate experience taught him and other opponents “to be very skeptical of those who say the game is over and we’re not going to proceed, and skeptical when House leadership says they will not blindside us.”
“If the House leadership is going to respect the wishes of the majority of Republican House members, then immigration is dead in 2014,” Brooks says. “The big question is whether House leadership is going to respect the wishes of the Republican majority, and I can’t answer that.”
Brooks says House Republicans are “pretty united” against taking action on immigration reform this year, driven by a deep distrust of President Obama and his commitment to enforcing new border-security laws, but he concedes that “it’s still a very fluid situation.”
“We have kind of a loose-knit group of people who are in wait-and-see mode,” Fleming says. “If leadership were to move forward, this group and probably others would coalesce.” He recalls that during a recent meeting of the Republican Study Committee before the GOP retreat, rank-and-file members were “overwhelmingly opposed” to moving forward on immigration reform.
One GOP aide following the immigration debate says proponents of reform have good reason to “cool things down” by lowering expectations in the week ahead. “Obama didn’t talk about immigration reform much in his State of the Union address, and that’s because he wants to give House leaders the space they need to advance legislation,” the aide says. “I think any effort to downplay the issue is being done with a similar motivation in mind.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.