How Steve King Will Kill Immigration Reform

King has a bloc ready to vote against any bill, no matter how conservative, to deny leadership the chance to compromise on reform.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) speaks during the DC March for Jobs in Upper Senate Park near Capitol Hill, on July 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Conservative activists and supporters rallied against the Senate's immigration legislation and the impact illegal immigration has on reduced wages and employment opportunities for some Americans. 
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Oct. 2, 2013, 2 a.m.

There’s no telling when an im­mig­ra­tion bill will come to the House floor, what it will say, or who will sup­port it.

Only one thing’s for sure: Steve King will vote no.

And he’s not alone.

The Iowa Re­pub­lic­an has or­gan­ized a small but grow­ing num­ber of con­ser­vat­ives who are com­mit­ted to vot­ing against any House im­mig­ra­tion bill — no mat­ter what it says — be­cause they fear the Sen­ate will in­ev­it­ably find a way to add “am­nesty” to the equa­tion.

King won’t say how many mem­bers he’s got on board, ex­cept that it reached “fairly deeply” in­to the GOP caucus. Lob­by­ists say it’s some­where between 20 and 70 mem­bers. Even at the low end of that range, it’s enough to pre­vent any Re­pub­lic­an-led im­mig­ra­tion bill from passing.

King’s “im­mig­ra­tion whip team” began in Janu­ary, when he learned that a group of House Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats were secretly ne­go­ti­at­ing an im­mig­ra­tion bill that he was cer­tain in­cluded a path to cit­izen­ship.

“I talked to Lou Bar­letta and said, ‘We’d bet­ter pre­pare ourselves,’ ” he said.

The House’s “Gang of Eight” has since splintered, with little chance of its care­fully ne­go­ti­ated pro­pos­al mak­ing an im­pact in the broad­er im­mig­ra­tion de­bate. But the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee has read­ied four con­ser­vat­ive im­mig­ra­tion bills that make up the “piece-by-piece” solu­tion to im­mig­ra­tion, and the House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee has com­pleted work on a bor­der-se­cur­ity bill.

“I say to the spon­sors, ‘Paint for me a scen­ario by which any of these five pieces of le­gis­la­tion could be­come law without sac­ri­fi­cing the rule of law.’ They’re an­swer to me is, ‘You’re to help with that. You’re to solve that,’ ” he said.

King solves it by say­ing no to everything.

Al­though King says he’s sup­port­ive of the re­form ef­forts in prin­ciple, he adds that they can only lead to a con­fer­ence-com­mit­tee com­prom­ise that he’d find un­ac­cept­able. “We’ll lose in every scen­ario I can think of,” he said. “There’s noth­ing to be gained.”

The core of King’s “whip team” is re­l­at­ively small, with Bar­letta and Mo Brooks, R-Ala., among them.

Ira Mehl­man, a spokes­man for the Fed­er­a­tion for Amer­ic­an Im­mig­ra­tion Re­form, says there are a “sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of mem­bers who are really con­cerned that any­thing that they come out with would be hi­jacked as a vehicle to push am­nesty.”

There has been no in­dic­a­tion that the House will vote on any im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion this fall bey­ond the state­ments of House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an, R”‘Wis., who said in Ju­ly that the House would vote on im­mig­ra­tion in Oc­to­ber. That Oc­to­ber win­dow of op­por­tun­ity was al­ways nar­row, however, and now it is likely that law­makers will be pre­oc­cu­pied with a debt-ceil­ing show­down next month in­stead.

From King’s per­spect­ive, that’s great. “Each day that has passed without floor ac­tion has been good for the rule of law and good for the rule of sov­er­eignty,” he said.

The Sen­ate bill that passed in June in­cluded a 13-year path to cit­izen­ship for un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants that met cer­tain cri­ter­ia. It has been widely re­jec­ted by the House, with Speak­er John Boehner in­stead seek­ing a “piece-by-piece” ap­proach to the is­sue.

But Boehner has also been quiet about what he wants to do on im­mig­ra­tion, spend­ing most of his time as­sur­ing mem­bers of his caucus that they won’t bow to the Sen­ate po­s­i­tion. King, by con­trast, is one of the most out­spoken mem­bers on im­mig­ra­tion, who has more than once caught flak for us­ing col­or­ful lan­guage to make his point that il­leg­al im­mig­rants harm the coun­try and con­trib­ute to crime. House Re­pub­lic­ans pub­licly dis­tanced them­selves from him after he com­men­ted in Ju­ly that many chil­dren of il­leg­al im­mig­rants are forced to work in the drug trade and have “calves the size of can­ta­loupes.”

Yet even if his GOP col­leagues are less in­clined to talk about im­mig­ra­tion, they tend to sym­path­ize with King’s views op­pos­ing any form of leg­al­iz­a­tion. They also fear that busi­ness groups that fa­vor a path to cit­izen­ship will pres­sure House lead­ers so much that they will agree to act on the is­sue.

It’s the­or­et­ic­ally pos­sible for Boehner to get an im­mig­ra­tion bill through the House without King and his com­pat­ri­ots.

The Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee’s bor­der-se­cur­ity bill could bring some Demo­crat­ic votes, par­tic­u­larly be­cause they are dis­cuss­ing in­sert­ing it in­to a broad­er com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion bill that would also in­clude a path to cit­izen­ship. But GOP lead­ers can­not count on Demo­crats’ as­sist­ance with just that bill be­cause they also won’t sup­port any im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion that doesn’t in­clude a path to cit­izen­ship.

King, for his part, is proud of his abil­ity to give voice to con­cerns among his less out­spoken col­leagues. “Long been my role,” he said. “If something cries out for at­ten­tion and people are ig­nor­ing it, I will step up and do my best to turn it in­to an is­sue.”

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