What’s Missing From the House Republican Agenda

Chris Frates

The most interesting thing about this month’s House GOP agenda is what’s not on it: namely, immigration reform.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor sent a three-page memo to House Republicans on Friday outlining a May schedule that includes everything from legislation dealing with the Keystone pipeline, to accountability at the Securities and Exchange Commission, to debt prioritization. But immigration, the issue poised to consume the Senate for the next two months, is nowhere to be found in the 1,157-word document.

Cantor’s agenda is just another sign that House Republicans are playing defense on immigration reform. Unlike the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan House working group has yet to finalize an immigration agreement. And Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has indicated plans to slowly tackle the issue one piece at a time. So the House isn’t exactly rocketing toward reform, and that is largely by design.

“It really is wait and see. We don’t want to get too far ahead of anyone, including the Senate, and we don’t want to have to box ourselves in to having to do something major when the Senate can’t either—a cautious approach to it,” a senior House GOP leadership aide said.

“There’s not a lot of attention on this right now, so nobody’s really saying we need to do this right away. Our guys are focused on the debt limit again, and they say that’s our biggest issue going forward right now, so to get them to focus on other topics ... is tough.”

It’s a familiar play, the same one House Republicans just ran on strengthening background checks for gun purchases: Indicate an openness to dealing with the issue and then wait to see what the Senate does. And just like background checks, if the Senate fails to pass something, don’t expect any House action on immigration.

“We always assumed ... that they’re going to take their cues from what happens in the Senate,” a Democratic Senate leadership aide said. “The leadership is definitely keeping their options open to see what the Senate does.”

Indeed, House GOP leaders have publicly signaled some openness to reform. Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan both said the Boston bombings should not sidetrack reform, a sentiment at odds with some other congressional Republicans. And Monday, when the conservative Heritage Foundation released a study showing that immigration reform would cost $6.3 trillion, Ryan told CQ Roll Call that reform could help boost economic growth.

House leaders must grapple with both the policy and political implications of immigration, including the hope that passing reform legislation will help Republicans attract Hispanic voters who have abandoned the party in droves over the past several years.

But they can’t get too far out in front of a conservative conference that has shown little appetite, or understanding, of the complex issue. “People are pretty uninformed about immigration,” another House GOP leadership aide said.

To change that, Goodlatte has held at least one meeting with about 25 fellow Republicans to walk them through the issue.

“There isn’t 218 votes for anything. So we’re still trying to figure out where people are and what they’re interested in doing and what the temperature is in the conference,” a Republican leadership aide said.

Just don’t expect a clear answer to that question unless the Senate passes immigration legislation first.