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Democrats Are Awfully Tepid About House GOP Immigration Principles. Here’s Why. Democrats Are Awfully Tepid About House GOP Immigration Principles. He...

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Democrats Are Awfully Tepid About House GOP Immigration Principles. Here’s Why.

There's quiet hope that reform could actually happen, and supporters don't want to get in the way.

Immigrants celebrate after taking the oath of allegiance to the United States at a naturalization ceremony last month in New York.(John Moore/Getty Images)

photo of Elahe Izadi
February 5, 2014

Democrats are mildly, questioningly optimistic about the House Republican draft immigration principles that were rolled out last week.

And that muted response is the best indicator that they are still holding out hope that reform will actually happen.

"[House Republican] leadership has articulated a path and we don't want to preclude us walking down that path with them," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said. "We'll see where they go and and we don't want to impede making progress on that, so our response has been pretty calibrated to say, OK, you set forth principles, now let's see what kind of consensus you have in your party, how that will be put forward in specifics, and if we can work together to get to an end. We think that's constructive on our part."


Capitol Hill's political landscape around immigration reform is mostly centered around swaying a core of House Republicans. If a chunk of the conference in the House backs reform this year, those principles will be manifested in legislation. Some of them, like border security, have already been addressed via bills that passed House committees.

Democrats may be happy Republicans are talking immigration, but that's as far as they'll go. That's partially because it's unclear how the GOP draft principles will be spelled out in legislation, and also because a Democratic endorsement could hinder the efforts to get Republicans on board with reform this year.

"They have a long way to go, and I will respect that because we took our time here to make sure we were able to produce something that I think is a very good piece of legislation," said Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who was in the Senate Gang of Eight that crafted the Senate's immigration bill. "We got the support of both Republicans and Democrats, and I hope they end up in a similar place when they finish."

A memo from House Speaker John Boehner's office offers a side-by-side comparison of the House GOP principles and the Senate bill, the intention being to show how the two are worlds apart.

"It's probably a good political move. That's great," Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and Gang of Eight member, said of the memo. "There's been willingness on the part of the president, it looks like, and Democratic leadership, to work. And certainly Republican senators will work with them."

Democrats acknowledge they are giving House Republicans "room to breathe," as one Senate leadership aide put it. Another noted that there isn't anything in the drafted principles that can be interpreted as a deal-breaker, at least not yet. "We don't want to be viewed as the ones who torpedoed this thing," one House Democratic lawmaker said.

"There's a lot of space being given, and what I said, there are more questions than answers," said Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona. "A lot of my colleagues who have been on this issue are keeping their powder dry. They're not saying anything."

But an internal debate is stirring among Democrats as to how long to hold back criticism. The GOP draft specifically rules out a "special pathway to citizenship for those who broke our nation's immigration laws," in favor of a legalization mechanism. What the draft doesn't indicate is whether those who tread down the path toward legalization could eventually become citizens.

Grijalva said one deal-breaker for him is a prohibition of citizenship for any of those immigrants here illegally now.

But just because so many hope reform will happen this year doesn't mean it actually will. The immigration debate has only barely begun in the House. The prospect of actually voting on legislation is a ways off, especially with the debt-ceiling fight immediately ahead and a fall election looming. Republican leadership, meanwhile, believes it can take its time. 

And that timeframe may extend out a while. Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a supporter of reform, said at a Tuesday Bloomberg Government breakfast that a majority of House Republicans oppose moving ahead with immigration this year. Some Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, called it an "irresolvable conflict," adding, "I don't see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place."

The debate is moving in a direction where Republicans answer questions on the possibility of reform by saying many distrust the Obama administration to actually enforce immigration laws. "We don't trust the president to enforce the law," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., an advocate for reform, said this weekend.

But don't expect Democrats to hold their tongues on that point, especially with the record number of deportations under Obama.

"It's a way to rationalize their unwillingness to move forward," Hoyer said. "I don't give it any credibility."

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