Representative Steve Israel (N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has a tough job ahead: to help Democrats win back the House in 2014. So, naturally, he’s delighted that a collection of business groups, coordinating with President Obama and the Senate Gang of Eight, are targeting 100 or so House Republicans on immigration over the August recess.
“We will hold Republicans accountable if they continue to obstruct progress on immigration,” he tells me, adding that the combined power of business, labor, and popular opinion means that if “you don’t listen, it will be an issue.” Democratic efforts will be formidable, but don’t count out the opponents of the Senate immigration bill, who have their own game plan, including focusing attention on Speaker John Boehner.
Sheriff Sam Page of Rockingham County, N.C., has been leading a nationwide effort to enlist local sheriffs to lobby their local House members against the Senate bill, and in August the show could go on the road and into Boehner’s Ohio district, where Page has already been in talks with local sheriffs’ offices.
Referring to Boehner’s promise to abide by the Hastert rule (by which a majority of the majority party must support a bill before it can be brought to the floor for a vote), Page said he “would just encourage Speaker Boehner to remain strong” and stick with the “SAFE Act,” an enforcement-only bill that the House Judiciary Committee recently supported.
Representative Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a freshman who is rising to prominence through the immigration fight, is preparing to launch an August blitz on the issue, too. And the usual coalition of outside groups — including the Heritage Foundation, NumbersUSA, the Eagle Forum, and the Tea Party Patriots — are all planning their own recess efforts to sway the tide against amnesty.
Opponents of the Senate bill are vastly outgunned in terms of money and manpower, but the issue of immigration tends to pit an elite consensus against the views of average Americans, which helps opponents tap into popular sentiment.
The business groups also have something of a credibility problem among House Republicans, one that has been exacerbated, for example, by a series of factual errors in ads funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that promote the Gang of Eight bill.
“Agricultural people back home say you ought to go for the Senate bill because these are good families who want to become citizens,” says Representative Dennis Ross of Florida. “What they are really saying is that ‘we just need to have a stable labor force and if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.’ I’m sure it will have some impact, but I think we’re still going to continue to do it piecemeal [in the House].”
“The fact that the Senate bill’s backers are teaming up with the business lobby to target House members demonstrates yet again what Senator Sessions has been saying: The corporations behind the comprehensive overhaul believe — correctly — that a huge spike in low-skill immigration will significantly reduce wages,” says Stephen Miller, a spokesman for Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Over the recess, Sessions intends to hammer a message about the negative impact of more immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers.
August is becoming such a crucial time for the fight in part because it appears increasingly that the House will not touch the issue before departing for recess. While Boehner made clear in recent weeks in private conversations that he wanted to see the first of the piecemeal bills come to the floor before members boarded their jets out of town, the House schedule is now so full that bringing up anything other than piecemeal legislation would be difficult. The last week of the House session has been slated for non-immigration issues — for instance, a series of bills pushed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor that will address government intrusion into peoples’ lives. The hope is to refocus attention on recent Obama-administration scandals as we head into August.
In contrast, voting on an immigration bill would highlight deep divisions within the conference and require a lot of explanation by lawmakers back home. Still, leaders refuse to rule it out, and they have not told senior GOP lawmakers definitively what their plans are.
Meanwhile, even as the debate has moved on from the Senate, senators and their staffs are following it to the House — and not just through the effort to coordinate an August air war.
Aides to Senator Marco Rubio who worked on the Senate’s immigration bill were spotted Wednesday departing Representative John Carter’s office — Carter (Tex.) is the Republican point man on the House’s “Gang of Seven,” a bipartisan group that is working on a comprehensive bill. The episode underscores, even as Rubio himself has basically gone into hiding, that his aides are continuing to work in the House.
On the other side of the debate among Republicans, Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, met with Representative Lamar Smith, also of Texas, two weeks ago, Smith said; and Cruz also attended a meeting at the office of Representative Steve King of Iowa, according to Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas.
The office of another top opponent of the Senate bill, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, is in close consultation with House members as well. Lee’s aides are meeting with key House staffers, helping them lay the groundwork for the arguments they will encounter in favor of a comprehensive bill, a GOP Senate aide said. The Senate bill remains dead on arrival in the House, but that doesn’t mean comprehensive immigration reform is out of the question there.
GOP representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, a close Boehner ally, says most House Republicans would support a comprehensive bill that is considerably more robust in its “trigger” structure and enforcement provisions.
Simpson wants badly to pass some of the piecemeal bills so that the House can go to a conference committee with the Senate, where he hopes the two chambers can strike a deal on a comprehensive bill. But when I asked him about his colleagues who fear that the outcome of a conference committee would be “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, he was frank: They have a point, even if he disagrees with where they’re coming from.
“They’re legitimate complaints from their point of view,” Simpson says. “And I don’t know how you’re going to do an immigration bill that doesn’t [somehow] deal with the 11 or 12 million who are here. That’s going to be a part of any final deal. And that’s what stops them from wanting to go to conference, because they’re afraid that will be in any conference report. But I don’t know how you do immigration without doing that,” he adds.
We may see that play out, but not before an unpredictable August recess has its say.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @j_strong.