Rep. Raul Labrador might have been the only Republican to walk away from immigration talks, but his exit virtually ensures the bill that makes it to the House floor will be a conservative document that looks nothing like the Senate bill.
A bipartisan group now composed of seven House members has kept working to strike a deal even after Labrador—once considered central to the effort—quit on Wednesday. Members of the group say their proposal is about 80 percent written.
But when Labrador unveils his own alternative package—whether a comprehensive bill or a series of individual measures—it will compete with the House group's offering in a Judiciary Committee stacked with the Idaho Republican’s fellow conservatives. And it’s the one that’s likely to survive.
Labrador split with the group Wednesday evening, proclaiming irreconcilable differences over whether illegal immigrants, once given legal status, would have to pay for all of their own health care costs. Talks repeatedly broke down over the same question in May, and each time he threatened to walk away and write his own bill.
Now that he has the chance, the former immigration attorney is unsure whether it will be a single bill or smaller pieces of legislation to broaden the scope of bills already introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
“I don’t want just a bill, I want to be able to get through the House of Representatives,” Labrador said, noting he is still talking to both the Republican leadership and Goodlatte about the best way to achieve that goal. His preference is to pass a series of bills that, taken together, deal with the entirety of the broken immigration system.
"However if, after talking to leadership, I realize that one comprehensive bill is the best approach because that’s how we can get more Republican votes, then I have no problem with that. That’s a tactical decision that we’ll have to make as we keep moving forward,” Labrador said.
If he does go the piecemeal route, Labrador says he hopes to “complement” a group of bills authored by Goodlatte and other Republicans on the committee. In addition to a new bill dealing with interior enforcement that Goodlatte introduced Thursday, he has also introduced measures dealing with high-skilled workers, E-Verify, and agricultural guest workers.
Labrador could, for example, offer a bill that carves out the process for granting legal status to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. He says the vast majority of Republicans recognize that mass deportation is not an option, and even though some of his colleagues don’t think that citizenship should ever be an option for people who broke U.S. immigration laws, Labrador thinks that’s just bad policy.
“I think to create a second-class status in the United States, you will have people that will never feel the love and the desire to become fully integrated into the American society,” he said. He also acknowledged that for an immigration overhaul to pass the Senate, it would have to deal with all of the problems in the system, not just border security.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seems in no hurry to choose between the various approaches cropping up in his chamber. He said his team is still working with everyone involved in the debate, and that he hoped the Judiciary Committee “will have some vehicles”—plural—“available to us by the end of the month.”
One thing Boehner has guaranteed he will not do is take up a bill passed by the Senate, which will move immigration legislation to the floor Friday.
So far, many in his chamber seem to be coalescing around the piecemeal approach preferred by Labrador, who is widely respected by his conservative colleagues because of his background.
“I think in the House we would much prefer a series of individual bills than one big large approach and one big large package,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee. Yesterday, the RSC members heard a panel of speakers discuss immigration, including Republican senators both for and against the comprehensive bill being crafted in the upper chamber.
“I think a lot of our members have real problems with the Senate bill, but just the fact that it is a more comprehensive bill--that just creates more problems,” he said.
Adding to the grim future for a bipartisan immigration bill in the House was an amendment offered Thursday by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would end the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to practice prosecutorial discretion, which allowed the agency to delay deportations for low-priority illegal immigrants such as the so-called “Dreamers,” those who were brought to the United States as children.
Though the amendment—which is unlikely to become law—largely reflected Congress’ frustration with the administration’s crafting of immigration policy rather than a particular desire to punish young immigrants, it still passed along a party-line vote.
That makes the path forward even tougher for the remaining members of the bipartisan working group, which includes Republican Reps. John Carter and Sam Johnson of Texas, and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, and Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, and John Yarmuth of Kentucky.
“Anytime you lose somebody of the stature, of the political stature and intellectual understanding that Raul Labrador has of immigration, it’s always going to make it more difficult,” said Gutierrez. “He contributed enormously and is one of the most knowledgeable people in our Gang of Eight on immigration policy, and the fact that he left our group is going to make it more difficult.”
Gutierrez said that 95 percent of the bill was agreed on. Yarmuth said that about 80 percent had already been drafted, and he predicted the group would complete its work within the next few weeks.
Correction: An earlier version of this story omtted Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., from the list of Rpublicans in the House bipartisan working group.
This article appears in the June 7, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.