Republican House members are not willing to consider legislation that legalizes millions of undocumented immigrants, no matter how loud the Senate crows over a big bipartisan vote on immigration reform or how aggressively Democrats try to shame them. At least not yet.
The immigration grand bargain that won Senate approval Thursday on a 68-32 vote will have to stay idling by the curb until House Republicans conclude it's politically safe to move forward. Right now, Republicans say they face nothing but reprisal from their home districts if they vote for anything that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. "The Right hates this," said one GOP aide.
Getting from Point A, Senate passage of a major immigration overhaul, to Point B, House approval of a bill whose next destination is a White House signing ceremony, is a challenge that has stymied proponents of reform all year. In the beginning, they were hoping that House Speaker John Boehner would be willing to allow a bill to pass with more Democratic votes than Republican votes. That opportunity, if it ever existed, has disappeared. Rank-and-file Republicans have repeatedly extracted assurances from the speaker that he won't flout the GOP majority's views on immigration. Boehner this week reiterated his promise that any immigration legislation emerging from the House would have support from a majority of Republicans.
Next, some proponents have floated the idea that the House could pass an immigration package that includes provisions unpalatable to President Obama and Democrats and excludes pieces they consider essential, such as a path to citizenship. They would settle for this outcome for the sole purpose of the House passing something—anything—that would get them to a conference committee with the Senate. In theory, the deal-breaker provisions could be erased in the conference negotiations.
That strategy isn't flying with Democrats. Here's just one example: House Republicans say that allowing local law enforcement to apprehend and detain unauthorized immigrants is critical to enhancing border security. Democrats reject that idea without blinking. "No," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a lead sponsor of the Senate bill, when asked if Democrats could accept that provision as part of a comprehensive package. "Look, I have opposed that forever, because even the toughest law enforcement will tell you that you undermine the confidence of communities to talk to local police."
Democrats have other demands. Anything short of eventual, full citizenship for undocumented immigrants would trigger protest marches from liberal activists. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that immigration negotiators are not to touch Obama's health care law, which means Republicans who want to ban health care subsidies for green-card holders are out of luck.
The situation becomes a stalemate: Deal-killer provisions for Democrats are essential components for Republicans.
There may be another way to get to Point B, but it is based on the questionable proposition that the House GOP would work its will at first and then be willing to compromise later. The House Judiciary Committee has readied a series of smaller immigration bills—on local law enforcement, agricultural workers, electronic verification, and high-skilled visas—that could see floor votes in July. Assuming they pass, Republicans say they could package them as an opening bid for conference negotiations with the Senate.
Thus far, however, the list of House bills doesn't include anything that legalizes the undocumented population, ignoring the top demand from both Democrats and Obama. What's more, the bills have not passed the committee with Democratic votes. It's hard to convince bipartisan reformers that they should back a strategy in which House GOP leaders have to rely solely on Republican votes. The farm bill's downfall last week erased what little faith they might have had in such a plan.
So what's next? Members "have to get beat up a little bit at home" before a vote on a major immigration bill is even possible, said one GOP aide close to House leaders. So far, that's not happening. "My constituents all like what we're doing," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the Judiciary Committee's Immigration Subcommittee. "They like the fact that you're giving scrutiny to each component, as opposed to saying, 'We hope that you like this enough to overlook the fact that you don't like this at all.' "
The Senate's comprehensive immigration bill is exactly the kind of grand compromise that rank-and-file House Republicans are assiduously avoiding. They see Republican senators giving away a path to citizenship, desperately sought by Democrats, in exchange for promises of tougher enforcement—a bad deal, in their eyes. "Oh, they hate it, my constituents," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
It's hard for reform advocates to fathom that the GOP rejects what they see as an obvious truth—either immigration reform passes or Hispanics ditch the Republican Party forever. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calls House Republican opponents "the crazies." Congressional aides supportive of reform efforts shake their heads in disbelief, urging reporters to ask Republicans what they propose to do about 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a supporter of a path to citizenship, says opponents of immigration reform hurt the GOP's image with Hispanics. "It's hard to sell your economic agenda if they think you're going to deport [their] grandmother," he said.
But such arguments don't seem to have much traction in the House. To wit, ultraconservative hard-liner Steve King, R-Iowa, is feeling pretty good. "I was a lonely guy two months ago," the congressman said of his protests against bipartisan groups in the House and the Senate crafting big immigration bills. "Lots of people said, 'You can't stop that.… Now I'm juiced. I'm going to go try out for the Redskins."