It was the congressional version of Fight Club: a bipartisan group of lawmakers working in secret to draft immigration-reform legislation. It closely guarded the membership, kept the bill locked down, and did not talk about it, for fear the controversial reforms would cause its members, particularly Republicans, political problems. For years, they waited for the right time to dust it off.
So when immigration reform gained bipartisan momentum after the election, these lawmakers came out of the shadows and GOP House Speaker John Boehner said that the group basically had a deal. The House had an opportunity to lead.
But that’s not going to happen.
Sure, the House will likely hold hearings and markups, and maybe even offer the bipartisan bill, but they’re not going first. House Republican leadership thinks immigration will likely fail in the Senate, and they’re not wild about the idea of making their members take a politically tough vote only to have reform die.
Instead, Republicans aren’t saying much of anything when it comes to immigration for fear of “making accidental news as opposed to being on message,” as one House GOP aide put it. And if the Senate does pass something, the House GOP is betting that it'll go too far.
“If they overreach, it gives Republicans an opportunity to tailor our message to the overreach instead of getting into a broader debate,” the aide said.
Democrats acknowledge that Boehner will need to be prodded to act either by Senate action or outside business groups. Some are wary of putting out a bipartisan bill without GOP leadership backing. Otherwise, they worry, it will get torn asunder.
But the group doesn’t appear close to releasing anything. Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a group member, said he’ll host a dinner with colleagues next week to hear what they want in a bill. He said he didn’t know whether the House or Senate has more momentum at this point.
“There are a lot of conversations going on and that’s positive and I believe is going to bear fruit,” he said.
In the Senate, there hasn’t been much movement since the so-called Gang of Eight introduced its reform principles early last week. Most everyone is deferring to the Judiciary Committee, explaining that legislation will get written and shaped through the regular legislative process. And that committee won’t hold its first hearing on immigration reform until next week.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Gang of Eight member, told National Journal that there’s no Senate Republican point man heading up the tough job of turning principles into legislation.
Rather, members are working on issues important to them. In Rubio’s case, he’s drafting legislation on immigration enforcement that, like the rest of the issues, will eventually go through committee.
There’s no real organization yet, he said, adding, “We’re just getting started.”
This article appears in the February 7, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.