Ever since the Senate passed the Gang of Eight immigration bill, attention has turned to the House, where the press and everyone else involved has gone to elaborate lengths to divine what the GOP will do on the issue.
Among the ten or so major players on the issue, there are subtle distinctions in their views, motivations, and incentives that could end up shaping the results of the debate. Here’s a guide to the key members of the Republican leadership:
Speaker John Boehner
Less than 48 hours after the election results came in on November 6, Boehner set the tone for his immigration stance, telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer the issue “has been around far too long” and “I think a comprehensive approach is overdue.”
It was the first of many signals from Boehner that enacting an immigration-reform law is one of his top priorities, if not his No. 1 concern. For example, in January, he inadvertently revealed the existence of the secretive bipartisan Gang of Seven in the House for the first time when his remarks from a private Q&A at the Ripon Society were put online. In April, the Gang’s founding Republican member, Representative Sam Johnson of Texas, said Boehner “asked” him to lead the negotiations.
Boehner says in public that his motivation is to fix a “broken” system. But in private, he’s more blunt about the politics of the issue. In his remarks to open the big “special conference” meeting July 10, Boehner warned colleagues that doing nothing would leave the party vulnerable to withering attacks.
Thus, conservatives fear, and liberals hope, that Boehner might violate the so-called Hastert rule, as he’s done with several other key bills this Congress, on immigration legislation — allowing, say, the Senate bill to pass with mostly Democratic votes.
But there are also several other factors driving the distrust.
In the last Congress, Boehner repeatedly sought to negotiate a big deficit-reduction deal with President Obama, sometimes even leaving his top lieutenant, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in the dark about what he was up to. And long after most House Republicans had lost faith they could strike such a deal with Obama, Boehner kept up hope, and kept talking to the president.
“It’s failed twice. Twice. Get over it,” a frustrated GOP lawmaker told Roll Call in December 2011.
In private conversations, many Boehner skeptics cite what they believe to be the Ohio Republican’s underlying motivation: “legacy shopping,” as one aide puts it. More charitably, Boehner places great weight on the responsibility he has as speaker to leave the House, and his party, in better shape than when he took over.
Discussions about how Boehner will be viewed in the history books have been prompted by rumors sweeping K Street and Capitol Hill that he plans to retire at the end of this Congress. The chatter was so prevalent that Boehner recently convened close lobbyist friends to reassure them he planned to run for reelection.
But the idea drives Boehner allies nuts. “Totally ridiculous! Totally 100 percent false. Anybody saying that obviously doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says Representative Devin Nunes, a friend of the speaker. “The idea that he would want to quote-unquote burnish his legacy by passing Obama’s immigration bill is just flat stupid,” says a GOP leadership aide.
Regardless of what drives him, Boehner has made airtight promises to uphold the Hastert rule on immigration — even when voting on a bill produced in conference committee — that will box him in. And as the debate has progressed, he’s declined to take stands on key aspects of the debate, saying his role is only to facilitate the discussion.
“Where I once thought maybe he would use some elbow grease or some muscle to get something done, I now take him at his word. He’d like to get something done and he doesn’t know how, which he said famously a few weeks ago, and now he’s saying, ‘I’m just a facilitator.’ Okay, I get it. You’re a facilitator! It’s going to be up to others to figure out how to get it done,” says Frank Sharry, the president of America’s Voice and a top proponent of comprehensive immigration reform.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor
Cantor’s moves on immigration have to be seen through the lens of his larger effort to soften the GOP’s image with voters, a process that he has branded “making life work for more people.”
Though he voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, which provides legalization for illegal aliens brought to the U.S. as children, Cantor revealed in his inaugural “making life work” speech at the American Enterprise Institute that he wanted to address the problem.
He has since taken the lead on drafting the “Kids Act,” a Republican version of the DREAM Act, which, according to a GOP lawmaker with knowledge of the situation, is finished and awaiting introduction.
Though he is clearly anxious to see the House pass some immigration bills to help with the messaging effort, Cantor is generally considered the person in the upper echelon of GOP leadership most likely to put the brakes on any big, comprehensive bill that conservatives perceive as problematic. On the other side of the aisle, key Democrats are already convinced his actions are just for show.
Insiders note that Cantor could conceivably tackle the issue as speaker in 2015, perhaps making him less likely to want to see a bill cross the finish line into enactment now.
Whip Kevin McCarthy
For all the criticisms of his vote-corralling abilities, McCarthy clearly possesses one of the party’s best political minds. A top recruiter of political talent, the California Republican has a broad and deep knowledge of the nation’s district-by-district landscape.
It’s from that perspective, first and foremost, that he approaches the issue, and McCarthy is definitely in the camp that solving the problem is critical for the GOP’s long-term political future.
For that reason, and given his policy views on the subject, one would think McCarthy should be considered a top proponent of a comprehensive bill. However, his role as whip means he’s inherently more likely to be a voice of caution. McCarthy has talked openly about how he’s often the one who has to tell Boehner “no” — that the votes just aren’t there. He also has to protect the perception of him as an honest broker between leadership and the rank-and-file.
With his own views pulling him one way and the demands of his position pulling him the other, McCarthy is a neutral force.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte
One of the untold stories of the immigration debate in the House thus far is how much it has been Bob Goodlatte’s show. The conservative Virginia Republican has arguably been more pivotal than Boehner in driving the House’s approach to the issue. For example, despite Boehner’s involvement in the Gang of Seven’s work toward a big, comprehensive bill, it is Goodlatte’s piecemeal approach that has prevailed for now.
A former immigration attorney, Goodlatte is an old hand on the subject and is proceeding methodically, with plenty of hearings, markups, and expert testimony. He has a thinly disguised disdain for how the Senate bill came together and told me, “I think it’s important that we get this done right, and that is far more important to me than when we get it done.”
Even before Boehner made his Hastert-rule vows, Goodlatte was proclaiming the need to follow the informal precept. And when Cantor recently sought to allow an amendment from Representative Jeff Denham (R., Calif.) to allow illegal aliens to join the military to obtain citizenship, Goodlatte killed the idea on the House floor, showing he’s not afraid to throw his weight around.
Budget Chairman Paul Ryan
Like Goodlatte, Ryan is stepping into the vacuum created by Boehner’s relatively weak standing, becoming a big player behind the scenes and in the media.
But the counterpart to Goodlatte’s caution is Ryan’s zeal. Ryan clearly wants an immigration law the most of any of the major players — prompting questions about what kind of bill he might be willing to accept to get it.
The Wisconsin Republican has become something of a spokesman for the Gang of Seven both to fellow Republicans and in public, even though their legislation has not been introduced. He’s talking to members individually and explaining the Gang’s bill, but says he can’t be considered part of their group because he never participated in the negotiations.
Somewhat surprisingly, given his level of involvement, Ryan has not sat in on many of the leadership meetings about how the House should proceed. In part this is because the committee he chairs has no jurisdiction over immigration — something surely not lost on Goodlatte, who has engaged in several turf battles since taking the judiciary chairman’s gavel in January.
“My job is to help bring Republicans to consensus,” Ryan told me.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @j_strong.