Representative Steve King, a 63-year-old Iowa Republican, is restless and irritated, and it shows. He’s here, stewing in a hearing room in the Rayburn building, because he and his friends in the House’s tea-party bloc feel disconnected from the debate on comprehensive immigration reform. “A number of us have sat back and watched with amazement as some of our colleagues have leapt to erroneous conclusions,” King says, sitting alongside five other staunch opponents of legalization efforts. “But we are where we are with the momentum in the Republican party.”
A few blocks away, Senator Marco Rubio and his colleagues on the bipartisan Gang of Eight, who have lately been on the front pages of the national newspapers, are poised to release legislation that will probably include a pathway to legalization for undocumented workers. Rubio’s work on the issue landed him on the cover of Time magazine in February and has stirred talk of a presidential run. Meanwhile, the tea-party Republicans gathered here have received scant coverage, and scorn from liberals on Twitter, for their opposition to the Senate’s plan.
King and his crew are not driving the negotiations, and they increasingly feel like outsiders within their own party. “The meetings of the Gang of Eight and the secret meetings in the House of Representatives — the people who have been standing up for the Constitution and the rule of law haven’t been invited to those meetings,” King tells the assembled group of reporters. The other huddlers — Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Louie Gohmert (Texas), and Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) — nod and grimace. “We’ve got all the rich guys and the elitists talking to each other,” Rohrabacher says. “Unfortunately us regular folks don’t have that kind of coordination.”
A lot has changed in six years. In 2007, when Congress was last trying to pass an immigration bill, GOP critics of that version of “comprehensive reform” dominated the headlines, and their vocal opposition to what was then the Gang of Twelve’s plan scared off many Republicans who might otherwise have supported it. This time around, the anti-legalization warriors wonder why their party suddenly seems to be ignoring their concerns. “We’re seeing the inertia, and we’re concerned about having this wash over us,” King says.
Yet in spite of the eye rolling they generate within the Beltway establishment, these six colorful members (Gohmert, Bachmann, and King are frequent guests on cable news) might effectively stymie the Gang of Eight’s quest for a comprehensive package. King and company are preparing to block whatever comes out of the Senate, and they think they, not Rubio, will be the Republicans who shape the debate, especially on talk radio and within the conservative movement.
Republicans leaders are paying attention. Sources close to House conservatives say that King is working behind the scenes to sour his right-wing colleagues on the Gang of Eight’s plan, and he made calls over the weekend to finalize his strategy with members and conservative activists. Insiders say King is confident that conservatives will come to reject the Gang’s plan once they actually read it and see how it will lead to legalization for people who entered the country illegally, even though it is expected to also include enforcement triggers.
Barletta, a former mayor from Hazelton, Pa., says most House Republicans view the immigration issue from a much more local perspective than do many GOP senators, who, in his view, are trying to nationalize the debate far too much. The illegal-immigration debate isn’t just about politics and reaching new voters, Barletta says, but about obeying the law. When he was a mayor, he introduced an ordinance to prevent the city from working with businesses that hired undocumented workers. Immigrant groups promptly sued the city, and the ordinance was later ruled unconstitutional. But the support his effort gained him among conservatives helped Barletta win a House seat. “Once I saw illegal aliens getting more rights than the average citizen, that’s when I started my crusade,” he says.
Rubio, who appeared on seven talk shows on Sunday, continues to be the most prominent Republican on the issue, but the Florida senator’s prominence doesn’t faze this Gang of Six in the House. Although Rubio is popular for his tea-party rise and his soaring speeches on American exceptionalism, he did not come up through the House and has not spent years forging relationships with House conservatives. “They like him, but they’re not ready to give everything away for him,” says a House Republican aide. King and his allies think they’ll have time to push back after the Gang of Eight releases its bill, since they know the House GOP leadership won’t immediately embrace the Senate’s plan.
Before Thursday’s press conference at Rayburn, where the six conservative members met as a group for the first time before reporters, King had met with the Republican Study Committee, of which he’s a member, on Wednesday afternoon. During that session, he explained his concerns about the way the Senate Democrats and the White House are shaping the legislation, and he asked his colleagues to speak up and join his opposition. Other RSC members, such as Raúl Labrador of Idaho, told the group to wait and see how the legislation and the debate unfold, but King urged conservative Republicans to band together now.
Labrador is a Republican who presents a complicated problem for the Gang of Six. Labrador shares their views on almost every other issue. But on immigration, Labrador, like Rubio, is working with members of both parties to find a compromise. For months, he has been meeting privately with Democrats Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.) and Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), among others, trying to lay the groundwork for a House deal, in the event the Senate passes a version of the Gang of Eight’s legislation.
Bachmann, the founder of the House’s Tea Party Caucus, says she’s suspicious of the Senate’s plan because it focuses on legalizing undocumented workers instead of on border enforcement. Though she and others in King’s group have long had good relations with Labrador, they don’t understand the impulse he and other Republicans have to get so involved in bipartisan talks. “Why aren’t we just introducing one bill that says we need to fully secure the borders?” she asks.
As Labrador works with his group, and King works with his, Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team will be watching to see which group of the House’s right flank gains more support in the coming weeks. Most important to the leadership, sources say, is maintaining unity within the Republican conference as the House moves forward on the issue. Boehner hasn’t ruled out considering a comprehensive bill from the Senate, and he has been vague about how he wants to proceed, saying only that the committees and working groups should take the lead. What is clear is that the leadership doesn’t want a spectacle on the floor.
Gohmert says Boehner’s indecision about how the House will handle immigration reform gives conservatives an opening to press the speaker to follow “regular order,” by which lawmakers would put the bill through the full committee process, instead of rushing it through with minimal hearings. The House Judiciary Committee is likely to play an especially important role, and its chairman, Bob Goodlatte (Va.) told ABC News on Sunday that it’s “absolutely important” that the bill moves through his committee, and not get pushed from “the top down.”
Goodlatte’s emphasis on slowing down the process plays to King’s favor, since he has long been an influential player on Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration and border security, and he knows how to snag up a bill with hearings and amendments. In the coming days, look for King’s group to keep making “regular order” their rallying cry. “[Boehner] has pledged, absolutely, we’re following regular order,” Gohmert says. “The speaker would make himself a liar if he didn’t follow regular order.”
Rohrabacher agrees with the Texan’s observation. “There would be a revolt among Republicans if [Boehner didn’t] follow regular order,” he says. For the moment, though, the sentiment is more wishful thinking than a warning. The challenge for King’s Gang of Six is to make their case beyond a hearing room in Rayburn and to get fellow conservatives in the House and among the public to share their agitation.
Like the other five, Rohrabacher knows they’re in a difficult spot — a group of rabble-rousers with limited political capital inside the House trying to stop legislation that GOP grandees and many prominent conservatives have largely blessed. But he believes that the fight against comprehensive immigration reform is far from over. “What the leadership would like to shove down our throats, in terms of immigration reform, is bad policy and bad politics,” he says. “In the long run, the Republican party would be destroyed.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.