The immigration debate is in full swing in Congress. The Senate has passed a bill out of committee, and Majority Leader Harry Reid is pushing for final passage by the Fourth of July recess. The House Judiciary Committee began marking up single-issue bills this week, and House Speaker John Boehner has indicated he would like committees to wrap up their work within a similar time frame.
The surge of momentum in recent weeks excludes one group of potential players: seven House lawmakers hammering out a bipartisan immigration deal who have yet to release their bill. The train is leaving the station, and they are about to be left behind.
The group, some of whose members have been negotiating in secret for years, have indicated they were on the brink of releasing a plan for months. Since their eighth member, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, quit the talks earlier this month citing differences over how illegal immigrants should pay for their health care, the actions of the House have not reflected a body of lawmakers looking to pass comprehensive, bipartisan reform.
A few weeks ago, the House voted to end the Obama administration’s program of deferred actions for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Then, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., started the process of marking up single-issue immigration bills with an interior-enforcement measure that Democrats said would criminalize most illegal immigrants. The bill was reported out of committee Tuesday night on a 20-15 party-line vote, with support from Republicans such as Labrador and Spencer Bachus of Alabama, who in a previous hearing had praised President Reagan’s decision in 1986 to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Recent events have had “a chilling effect,” admitted one Democratic aide.
Another veteran of the pro-reform movement said Goodlatte’s recent actions showed there was no path forward for the bipartisan group’s bill through regular order—which Boehner has pledged to follow.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a Democratic member of the group, said she didn’t know whether their legislation could pass the Republican-dominated Judiciary Committee.
Still, members of the group insist they haven’t missed the window for releasing a bill that could gain support in the House. “We have spent a lot of time drafting. The members are going through the extensive bill word by word, line by line, to make sure that we all agree that it conforms to our agreement. That’s a necessary process, and it will take the time it takes,” Lofgren said. “The dance of legislation is a long and intricate one. And I am confident that the work that we’ve done will prove useful.”
As scores of self-imposed deadlines have come and gone, the group has always insisted that it values quality over speed. Another Democratic aide suggested that the House’s recent turn rightward, led by anti-immigration members such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, could actually underscore the need for something bipartisan.
“The more the GOP is held hostage by extreme Steve King types, the more negative the public’s backlash will be, because a majority of Americans want immigration fixed, and we’ll need a more serious approach in the House if it’s going to happen,” said the aide, who is not authorized to speak publicly.
The risk is that Republican members will coalesce around the options already on the table and push Boehner—who has pledged not to pass a bill without the support of the majority of his conference—to champion those measures.
“I think if [Goodlatte] brings a number of bills out of his committee, which is kind of the direction he’s been heading, I think it’s important to work on each bill as we find consensus and then get that passed instead of trying to do some comprehensive bill that ultimately goes against conservative principles,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee.
The group hasn’t been entirely shut out. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus emerged from a closed-door meeting with Boehner on Wednesday afternoon sounding certain that the speaker was committed to a bipartisan bill with majorities on both sides of the aisle.
“He is telling us that there is a big effort on both sides of the aisle to come to some compromise that will give us a bipartisan bill that can be brought to the house and passed and then go to conference,” said CHC Chairman Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas.
But with no options on the table at the moment that Democrats will support, the bipartisan group had better get moving if it wants to have its say.
This article appears in the June 20, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Bipartisan Group in House Falls Behind on Immigration.