Two months after the Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill, House members are returning to the Capitol in the same place, more or less, where they left off — divided on immigration, with no strategy to pass anything. That's the bad news.
The good news is that the issue wasn't poleaxed outright during the five-week August recess, a time-honored testing period when opponents are the loudest and legislation is vulnerable to messaging campaigns. (Witness the tea-party rebellion in 2010, which congealed Republicans' repugnance for President Obama's health care law and ushered in a fresh crop of House GOP members who wrested control of the peoples' chamber from Democrats.)
This year, House Speaker John Boehner wanted to use the summer break to get some idea of what to do about immigration in the fall. August allows members to reflect, consult with their constituents, and come back with a firmer sense of what they want to accomplish — or derail — before the session ends.
Boehner got a halfhearted thumbs-up to proceed, which is no small development considering that advocates feared August would be the most vulnerable time in their efforts to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants. Veteran immigration lobbyists remember all too clearly the House's 2006 August revolt, arranged by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, against a similar immigration bill. It ultimately killed the effort.
Things are different this time. "August left members free to make up their own minds. It told everybody that this isn't 'the' issue," said Bruce Morrison, a former Democratic representative from Connecticut who now lobbies on immigration for IEEE-USA, an engineers' association. "There's not a whole lot of apparent energy to get riled up about this, compared to other issues."
Public opinion on an immigration fix, including legalizing the undocumented population, remains generally positive. Polls show that a healthy majority of Americans want Congress to act on the issue, and most are perfectly OK with a path to citizenship for people without papers. In a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, 59 percent of respondents said they support the Senate bill or a version with more border security, while only 20 percent said the House should do nothing on immigration and thus quash the reform effort.
But this is a national viewpoint, reflecting the growing strength of Hispanic voters. It is of no help to most House Republicans. "It doesn't matter to the vast, overwhelming majority of Republican congressmen and -women what the Hispanic community thinks," Morrison said. "Fear is what makes members act. Their fears are all over their right shoulder."
The conservative strongholds that most House GOP members represent are not forgiving of votes favoring legislation viewed as liberal or moderate, even by Republicans who represent a high percentage of Hispanics. Only 24 Republicans hold seats with a Hispanic constituency of 25 percent or higher, according to The Cook Political Report. (Only a few of those are among the 24 Republicans who publicly favor a path to citizenship.) Half of those districts voted overwhelming for Mitt Romney in 2012, while only four went for Obama.
But immigration isn't GOP members' major concern. They spent most of the recess talking about Obamacare and fiscal issues. Absent a dominant protest against an immigration overhaul, public acceptance may be widening by default.
Republicans are "waiting to see how the dust settles in August. I think when the dust settles they will find we have won," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-reform group.
"Won" may be a bit strong, unless one's definition of winning is not losing. The reform effort did, in fact, inch forward in August. The number of House Republicans who made some sort of positive statement about a path to citizenship for the undocumented population grew from 18 to 24. "I'm not saying that's the biggest number in the world," Noorani acknowledged, "but these are people who are not bending backwards. They are moving toward us."
A case in point is Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who owes his congressional seat to immigration hard-liners who supported his 2008 primary campaign against longtime immigration-reform advocate Chris Cannon. Chaffetz said this at a recent town-hall meeting: "There should be a pathway to citizenship — not a special pathway, and not no pathway." Those words are tough to parse, but they are certainly not like the "over my dead body" message the GOP lobbed at Obamacare in 2010 and at immigration legislation in 2006.
House Republicans still aren't willing to fall on their swords for a big immigration bill. But their mildly positive statements give credence to the assertion that a sizable group — no one quite knows how many — would go along with one if it came up.
A cadre of opponents, led by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, will do anything to stop even small pieces of an immigration overhaul, Boehner's preferred approach. In King's view, even the most conservative of House immigration bills would lead to a conference committee with the Senate that would force members to swallow a path to citizenship. King's camp is hefty enough — estimates range from 30 to 70 members — to stop any immigration legislation from passing the House unless Democrats pitch in, which is not guaranteed.
Although opponents didn't multiply in August, that alone won't get immigration reform across the finish line. The next step is for Boehner to determine that it's safe to put legislation on the floor. The absence of a major uprising against the Senate bill may help inform that decision, but it doesn't dissipate the considerable pressure he would face within his caucus if he attempts to pass a GOP immigration package. It's still safer for him to do nothing. The key difference from earlier debates is that it may also be acceptable to do something.