Long after dozens of his fellow Republican lawmakers had filed out of room HC-5 in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Steve King of Iowa emerged, red in the face and agitated.
"I feel like Rumpelstiltskin," King said, apparently thinking of Rip Van Winkle. "I went to sleep last year before the election believing that all my colleagues believed in the rule of law, and opposed amnesty, and understood the impact of amnesty. And then I woke up the morning after the election and they believed something different."
The Republican Study Committee’s closed-door immigration meeting on Wednesday made one thing clear. On two of the three central missions that define comprehensive reform efforts—enhancing border enforcement and improving the legal immigration system—Republicans are largely on the same page. But when it comes to dealing with the millions of immigrants already living in the U.S. illegally, there remains a persistent—and intense—disagreement within the GOP.
There are other sticking points, certainly, as evidenced by Rep. Raul Labrador's abrupt decision later in the day to abandon the group of eight House members who had been working on an immigration package. The Idaho Republican decided to quit the negotiations after the group rejected health care-related language he was advocating.
Still, it's the fundamental question of providing citizenship—or legal status—to illegal immigrants that is proving most divisive among the GOP's right flank.
"There is no upside to it. I can't track their rationale or their logic," King said of those Republicans who support some sort of process to provide legal status to those who entered the country unlawfully. "I'm flabbergasted that so many otherwise-smart people can come to conclusions that aren't based on any kind of data."
King's frustration with Wednesday's discussion was not shared by all of his colleagues. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina called it "a great first meeting," Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio described it as "a good discussion," and Labrador, who before walking away from House negotiations was seen as the most influential RSC member on immigration matters, said the forum was "very helpful."
"There were remarkably divergent views that could all be described as conservative, but were still pretty far apart," Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., recalled of the discussion surrounding legalization efforts.
Fully aware of that rift, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida emphasized one idea to the group early on: "Let's focus on things we can agree on." He wanted to avoid the appearance of pitting conservative factions against each other, producing a "circular firing squad" story that could damage party unity and ultimately derail the progress he and other negotiators have made thus far.
It was apparent from the outset, however, that lawmakers didn't come to sing kumbaya.
RSC Chairman Steve Scalise, R-La., opened the immigration discussion by giving the group’s six Senate visitors—Gang of Eight members Rubio and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona; their opponents, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah; and the high-profile wild card, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—two minutes each to make a case for their position on reform. (Five House members playing central roles in the immigration policy process also were given two minutes apiece.) And while Sessions said his anti-amnesty position got the most applause, conversations with dozens of the RSC’s 171 members as they emerged from the session demonstrated no consensus on the way forward.
Some lawmakers trickled out of the meeting sounding as though they'd been trapped in a political echo chamber, uttering phrases like "rule of law," "repeating our mistakes," and "1986 all over."
"Everybody in that room agrees on better border security. Everybody in that room, I think, agrees on fixing the legal immigration system," Mulvaney said, adding: "What does that leave? That leaves us with the 11 or 12 million people who are here illegally."
Other members echoed Mulvaney's diagnosis. When Jordan, a former RSC chairman, was asked about points of conflict among conservatives present at Wednesday's event, he responded: "What do you think? It's about the 11 million. That's always the issue."
The Senate "Gang of Eight" bill, which includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, served as the baseline for discussion at the meeting. According to accounts from members and staffers inside the room, Lee was perhaps the most aggressive in prosecuting the Senate bill, while Rubio and Flake repeatedly emphasized areas of agreement over potential sticking points.
Rubio doubled down on his recent comments that the Senate bill he helped write still needs improvement. "I can tell you that the bill as currently structured isn't going to pass in the House. I think it's going to struggle to pass in the Senate," he told reporters after the meeting. He shied away from telling the House what kind of bill it should write, but seemed encouraged that there's room for reform.
"The vast majority of Republicans I've interacted with are prepared to support immigration reform, they're prepared to deal with the 11 million people that are here illegally, but only if this never happens again," Rubio said. "They're not going to support immigration reform and have another wave of illegal immigration in the future."
Labrador, viewed as Rubio's counterpart in the House – due to their tea party-backing, policy expertise, and Hispanic heritage—echoed the senator’s assertion that conservatives will get on board with a path to citizenship once they see other aspects of immigration reform are being addressed.
"I think we can get there, but once again, I don't think citizenship is the most important issue," Labrador said. "If we can fix the borders, if we can deal with future flow, if we can do interior enforcement, I think [conservative members'] positions on the citizenship issue will begin to soften."
Just how long that will take, however, remains to be seen. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, called all of the speakers at Wednesday's summit "compelling," but said he remains opposed to citizenship for anyone who came to the U.S. illegally. He also wants Congress to have a say on when there is operational control over the border—two principles at odds with those espoused by the Gang of Eight.
"I think there's real flaws with the Senate bill," he said. "I hope we improve it dramatically on the House side."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who was afforded a two-minute introductory speech, told reporters that the Senate bill "has a long way to go" before it could pass the House.
And, as with other members, Goodlatte's opposition to the Senate bill seemed to be underscored by one issue. "I prefer not having a special path to citizenship; I prefer a legalization," he said. "And I think there are a lot of other House members that feel that way."
The most unusual aspect of the meeting was the pairing of Senate Republicans who ardently oppose the Gang of Eight bill and those who helped write it. Sessions, perhaps the most aggressive opponent, walked out of the room seconds before his opposite on the measure, Rubio. Yet Rubio cordially asked Sessions to join him at the microphones before TV cameras.
Sessions demurred and waited for a solo appearance.
This article appears in the June 6, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.