House conservatives will host several influential Republican senators on Wednesday for a closed-door policy summit that will feature voices on both sides of the immigration debate, National Journal has learned.
As House negotiators work to finalize an agreement on comprehensive immigration-reform legislation, the Republican Study Committee has invited a handful of GOP senators, representing a range of views on immigration reform, to Wednesday's meeting in the Capitol. As of Friday, three had confirmed their attendance: Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mike Lee of Utah.
Wednesday's forum represents the first significant bicameral discussion on the divisive subject of immigration reform. The event, which will be moderated by RSC Chairman Steve Scalise, will include commentary from three RSC members playing pivotal roles in the policy process: Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee; Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Immigration Subcommittee; and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who is viewed as the leading voice on immigration matters among House conservatives.
"I'm glad that the RSC is able to bring together many of the key GOP players from the House and Senate with varying views on immigration so we can have an honest and open debate on the important differences and solutions to the problems that we are trying to solve," Scalise said in a statement to National Journal. "The first step to solving problems starts by fostering an open dialogue, and I look forward to an active discussion at our RSC meeting on Wednesday."
The fact that Scalise invited both advocates and opponents of comprehensive immigration reform to Wednesday's forum speaks to his strategy of eliciting member input and getting out in front of divisive policy fights before they spring up unexpectedly. It also reflects the lack of cohesion on the issue among House Republicans. Unlike the fights over gun control and the budget that have united the caucus in the 113th Congress, there is no conservative consensus on how to approach immigration reform. For months, many RSC members have refused to stake out a position, insisting that they would wait to see legislative text and hear arguments from all sides before making up their minds.
The three confirmed Senate attendees, all of whom rode tea-party support to 2010 victories, represent diverse viewpoints on the issue of immigration reform. Rubio, the most high-profile member of the Senate "Gang of Eight," has been attempting to assuage conservative fears about providing citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants without first installing border-security triggers. (Rubio has acknowledged the Senate bill must be improved to secure Republican support in the Senate, as well as in the House.) Paul is seen as a critical swing vote on the Gang of Eight bill, having spoken favorably about the idea of eventually legalizing those who are living in the U.S. illegally--as long as they aren't given preferential status over those who have been waiting in line. Lee, who was once involved in the Gang of Eight talks, eventually defected and later voted against the group's proposal, citing his opposition to a pathway to citizenship and special treatment for agricultural workers.
Several other GOP senators were invited to Wednesday's session but have not confirmed their attendance.
While House conservatives have yet to see any legislative language from their chamber, Wednesday's forum will expose them to an intensive lobbying effort from like-minded conservatives who will come to argue different sides of the same case. In that sense, Wednesday's event is shaping up like a court proceeding, with Rubio defending the Gang of Eight proposal, Lee prosecuting it, and Paul serving as the star witness.
The meeting comes as members of a House group--including Labrador--attempt to agree on the final details of an immigration package that is several years in the making. The House group, like its Senate counterpart, consists of four Democrats and four Republicans. It has been working to craft a comprehensive immigration proposal that is independent of the Senate version, which was introduced in mid-April and recently passed through the Judiciary Committee.
Rubio and his fellow Republicans in the Gang of Eight have worked to lobby skeptical members of their party to support their proposal, which includes an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented residents. Thanks to their efforts, the immigration reform bill is likely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The prospects are far less certain in the House, where Republicans hold the majority, and conservatives comprise most of the caucus. Goodlatte, who has already held hearings on certain sections of the gang's proposal, has said repeatedly that he prefers a piecemeal legislative approach rather than considering a comprehensive bill. That sentiment is shared by many House conservatives who are wary of aspects of the Senate measure, particularly the path to citizenship. At the same time, Labrador, who commands the respect of conservatives and has become the de facto House GOP leader on immigration reform, is working to craft a comprehensive measure that tackles the thorny issues of border security, documentation, and legalization in one package.
Labrador has laughed off comparisons to Rubio, but there is widespread acknowledgment on Capitol Hill that their missions--not to mention their pedigrees--are similar. Both are young, media-savvy Latino members with established conservative credentials. Indeed, Rubio and Labrador have long been viewed as essential to getting conservatives in their respective chambers on board with comprehensive immigration reform--either by convincing them of the merits, or providing cover with their own support.
Still, House aides acknowledge, any comprehensive measure agreed to in the House will be substantially to the right of the Senate bill. This would reflect the conservative membership of the House majority, they note. But if such a bill passed the lower chamber, it could threaten to shatter the delicate coalition assembled by Senate negotiators, who won the support of both labor and business groups with an emphasis on compromise and middle ground. The differences between the bills would ultimately be debated in a conference committee.
The RSC has, in the past, invited senators to attend meetings and update House members on the happenings in the upper chamber. But Wednesday's forum is the first time in recent memory that multiple senators will attend an RSC meeting to discuss--and, in all likelihood, debate--the merits of a major legislative push.