If House Republicans arrived at Wednesday’s special immigration summit hoping for clarity on how their conference would proceed on reform, they emerged two hours later appearing decidedly underwhelmed.
No fireworks erupted in the closed-door session, which Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama described as a “happy family discussion.” Conservatives received the reassurances they had sought heading into the meeting.
On the policy side, GOP members reached overwhelming consensus that border security should and will be the House’s top legislative priority. And on the process side, they reached broad agreement that they won’t rush to pass immigration law and they will act incrementally.
But as far as settling the specifics of how and when to pass immigration legislation, lawmakers seemed to leave the meeting with as many questions as when they entered.
“There is no approach of the conference,” said Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, who has been working for years on a comprehensive, bipartisan House bill.
“Not much really happened in there,” Rep. Randy Weber of Texas said with a shrug.
“We didn’t decide anything,” confirmed Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana.
Indeed, what was billed as a consequential and potentially defining meeting for the House Republican Conference devolved into what members described as an extended listening session, with lawmakers reiterating many of the same points they’ve been making for months—and with leadership offering the same noncommittal responses.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, opened the meeting by making his only new and definitive statement of the session: Inaction was not an option. After explaining that House Republicans can’t simply sit back and do nothing, the speaker itemized a series of promises aimed at assuaging conservative members’ fears. He reassured them—again—that no bill will come to the floor without majority support. He swore—again—that the Senate bill remains “dead on arrival” in the House.
Finally, rank-and-file members got the floor. At that point, they said later, the session simply became an airing of ideas, with no definitive feedback from the leadership team. Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, who before the meeting expressed optimism about finding common ground, said afterward that the session was more “cathartic” and less about moving the ball forward.
Much of the discussion centered on passing tough border-security legislation as a prerequisite to addressing other policy areas. This was a point of overwhelming agreement among members, before, during, and after the meeting. Still, even advocates of this approach are not sold. Conservatives, especially, have grave concerns that President Obama will choose not to enforce a border-security law if the House doesn’t also address the issue of citizenship.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas said he spoke to this issue in the meeting, standing at one point and telling his colleagues, “Trusting this president with border security is like trusting my daughter with Bill Clinton.”
The dynamic of the gathering, which bordered on boredom, was illustrated by two GOP lawmakers who crossed paths outside the room. One lawmaker, returning from a break, asked the other, “Still going on in there?” His colleague replied, “Yep. Not everybody’s spoken.”
“Not everybody’s spoken, but everything’s been said?” the first member summed up. “Yep,” came the reply.
Still, the session was useful in clarifying the sense of urgency—or lack thereof—with which the House plans to operate. The plan, according to several lawmakers, is for members to discuss the merits of immigration reform with their constituents over the August recess before voting on any legislation. Of course, members also expect to be consumed this fall with the next round of fiscal fights—meaning that immigration could get pushed back into the winter, or even to early next year.
Either way, an immigration vote is “100 percent unlikely” to happen in July, Fleming said.
The meeting also confirmed that a seven-member House group working on a comprehensive, bipartisan bill has become little more than an afterthought for most of the GOP Conference. None of the three Republicans in the group—Diaz-Balart, and Reps. John Carter and Sam Johnson of Texas—even presented information about their bill at the beginning of the meeting; as Diaz-Balart said, the group has decided not to present the bill until it is complete. The consensus among Republican members that the House must achieve immigration reform through a series of single-issue bills means that they might be forced to break up their product into pieces for it to even be considered. But whether that will happen is still unclear.
“I don’t have that answer,” Diaz-Balart said. “That’s a strategic decision. And it doesn’t concern me one way or another. If that’s helpful, I’m the first one who will propose doing that.”
Labrador was once a member of the group but quit earlier this year, citing differences over how illegal immigrants should pay for their health care. But it also appears that the tea-party leader may have been following the tide of public opinion.
“ ‘Comprehensive’ has always been a swear word in the House of Representatives,” he said after the meeting.
Labrador is now working with the Judiciary Committee to write single-issue bills. He is the GOP lawmaker most likely to author a piece dealing with legalization, but he has yet to offer any legislation.
House GOP leaders’ deliberate hands-off approach seems to be paying dividends with members who might vote for reform but don’t want to be rushed or forced to cast a vote on a big bill.
“I can honestly say leadership is doing the right thing here in that we’re having listening discussions, and they’ve agreed to continue educational meetings,” said Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, one of a handful of Republicans being targeted by immigration-reform advocates as potential aye votes. “We can ask all the questions that we may have as they come up, and go through this process.”
Perhaps the only surprise of Wednesday’s closed-door meeting came when Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington stood up to announce that a member of the conference was recording the meeting on his or her cell phone and sending it to reporters, multiple members said.
The lawmaker in question was not identified by his or her colleagues.
Ben Terris and Fawn Johnson contributed
This article appears in the July 11, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Immigration Summit Underwhelms.