With President Obama renewing his efforts to pressure House Republicans into passing immigration-reform legislation, opponents of the Gang of Eight bill hope to increase awareness about the potential pitfalls of going to a conference committee with the Senate and to pressure House leaders to refrain from doing so.
Last week, a coalition of more than a hundred conservative and tea-party groups, including the much-maligned but influential Heritage Action, urged House leaders to “make a public commitment that the House of Representatives will not conference any House immigration bill with any version of the Senate immigration bill or engage in any informal negotiations to do so.” The effort to pressure House leaders could take the form of a formal letter to them, modeled on the one circulated by Representative Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) in support of the effort to defund Obamacare.
House leadership still sees immigration reform as a priority. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) held meetings on the issue just days before the government shut down on October 1. Prominent members such as Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) are backing the reform effort, as are many deep-pocketed donors and powerful interest groups such as the Chamber of Commerce.
But the GOP will have to tread lightly. Words like “comprehensive” and “Gang of Eight” are toxic among the Republican base, so leadership has insisted on a “step by step” approach. The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), has already approved a series of bills dealing with specific issues, including border security and guest-worker visas. A bill that would offer a path to citizenship to a select group of illegal immigrants (the KIDS Act) is also said to be in the works.
Some observers have assessed the contentious proceedings of the past several weeks and concluded that even small immigration bills simply can’t win the support of the volatile GOP conference. No one thinks that passing an immigration-reform package in the House will be easy, but it’s still too early to pronounce the issue dead.
Conservative opponents of the Gang of Eight bill have been expecting this push for some time, and they have sought to dispel assumptions that immigration reform is a dead issue. They are wise to the procedural tricks that proponents could employ to increase the chances that comprehensive legislation would be signed into law. If the House passed a series of individual bills, for example, they could easily be cobbled together into one large package; lawmakers could also informally negotiate an agreement in the absence of a conference. Many conservatives think that going to conference with the Senate bill would produce a final product resembling that bill and that House Republicans would then face considerable political pressure to accept it.
Republicans who led the opposition to the Gang of Eight bill in the Senate are keeping a watchful eye. “It’s not step by step if the bills are merged with the Senate monstrosity at a later date — either through a formal conference or a closed-door negotiation. Any possibility of such an outcome must be ruled out,” Senators Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) wrote in a recent op-ed.
“A conference committee is our enemy,” a conservative GOP aide tells National Review Online. “We want to do immigration this year, we can do immigration reform and Republicans should support it, but the process has to be to take each one of these bills one step at a time and focus on the things that we agree on.”
There are signs that House leaders have gotten the message. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has not officially ruled out going to conference with the Senate but has insisted that any immigration-reform package must have the support of a majority of the GOP conference. Last week, Representative Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.) said at a gathering of conservative lawmakers that Boehner had privately assured him that “if there is any kind of conference, it will be on specific bills that we send over [to the Senate]. It will not be on the Gang of Eight bill.”
Many conservatives, however, remain skeptical. They note that prominent Gang of Eight supporters such as Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, which advocates comprehensive immigration reform, have signaled some flexibility on the issue of citizenship, tentatively embracing a proposal from chairman Goodlatte that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship through existing channels (after receiving legal status). That would be in addition to a special pathway to citizenship for so-called DREAMers, younger immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, a measure that is said to be the foundational component of the KIDS Act.
As Sharry explained to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, liberal immigration activists could rally behind the KIDS Act — if Republicans also committed to a conference committee, in which Democrats would inevitably argue for a comprehensive proposal and citizenship for all. Conservatives plan to remain vigilant in demanding transparency throughout the process should the House decide to move on immigration reform.
Still, there are valid reasons to think that immigration reform is doomed. Following the political debacle of the past few weeks, which culminated in Boehner’s violating the so-called Hastert rule and allowing a Senate-brokered budget agreement to pass with primarily Democratic support, some doubt that he will have enough political capital to take any action on immigration reform that could rile his conservative flank. There is also no deadline to force Boehner’s hand. “It’s not like blocking immigration reform prevents a government shutdown or default on the debt,” says a conservative aide. “I don’t see how Boehner would have the political leverage to force it through.”
The recent budget talks have also, to the extent that it is even possible, increased House Republicans’ dislike and distrust of President Obama. Representative Raul Labrador (R., Idaho), a prominent supporter of immigration reform and a member of the (now disbanded) House version of the Gang of Eight, has said “it would be crazy” for House Republicans to negotiate with Obama on immigration reform, because the president would never do so in good faith.
“He’s trying to destroy the Republican Party . . . and I think that anything that we do right now with this president on immigration will be with that same goal in mind, which is to destroy the Republican party, and not to get good policies,” Labrador said last week during a meeting with conservative lawmakers hosted by the Heritage Foundation.
One thing is certain: John Boehner’s job won’t be getting any easier anytime soon.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.