Senate Supermajority on Immigration Means Nothing in the House

Tim Alberta

The Senate is poised to pass comprehensive immigration reform this week with upwards of 70 votes, an impressive majority that sponsors of the legislation have long hoped will compel the GOP-controlled House to follow suit.

Don't count on it. This set of House Republicans has ignored supermajorities before, and is ready to do so again now.

"There's a totally different dynamic in the Senate than in the House," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a leading player in the lower chamber's immigration debate. "I'm never going to try to tell somebody in the Senate how to do their job, as I don't expect senators to tell us how to do our job."

For months, members of the Senate "Gang of Eight" have been entertaining Republican amendments to their immigration bill in an overt attempt to win greater GOP support for a comprehensive overhaul. Their strategic calculation is simple: The House will feel pressure to act only if the Senate bill attracts a significant number of Republican supporters.

"If we can come out of the Senate with close to a majority of the Republican senators and almost every Democrat, that may change the equation in the House and thinking in the House among mainstream Republicans," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said earlier this month on Meet the Press. "And they may want to go for our bill."

But as a final vote nears on the biggest immigration overhaul in three decades, House Republicans say the Senate tally will have no bearing on the opposition across the Capitol.

Speaker John Boehner told the House Republican Conference on Wednesday morning that the Senate bill remains "a nonstarter" in the House, according to Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.

"He didn't say, 'unless it gets 71 votes,'" Salmon said. "He said, 'It's dead on arrival.'"

The House has been here before. On three occasions in the 113th Congress, the Senate assembled something close to a "supermajority" in passing legislation. In February, the Violence Against Women Act cleared the Senate with 78 votes, 23 of them Republican. In May, 69 senators--including 21 Republicans--approved the Marketplace Fairness Act. And earlier this month, 18 Republicans helped pass the farm bill, which won a total of 66 votes.

In all three instances, the House responded with a collective yawn, as majority Republicans chose to alter the Senate language--or ignore it altogether.

The GOP wrote its own version of VAWA--which failed, prompting Boehner to bring the Senate bill to the floor. (It passed with 87 Republicans joining all 199 Democrats, a violation of the non-canonized "Hastert Rule," which says Boehner may only bring bills that are supported by the GOP majority.) The Marketplace Fairness Act, which enforces local sales taxes on online purchases, is collecting cobwebs in the House and has not been scheduled for a vote. The farm bill, meanwhile, failed in spectacular fashion last week after conservatives torpedoed a measure that was significantly to the right of its Senate counterpart.

This string of recent examples serves as ammunition for conservative activists, who are counting on the House to resist any pressure applied by what could be an overwhelming vote in the upper chamber.

"What we've seen is the House doesn't follow the Senate's lead, and the Senate doesn't follow the House's lead," said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, which is lobbying against the Senate bill. "The idea that a Republican-held House should rush to pass a bill just because a Democratic-controlled Senate passed something is at odds with what the American people voted for in November--divided government."

Besides, House Republicans say the pressure they’ll feel around the immigration bill won’t be from Senate passage; it will be from constituents demanding that they stop the legislation’s progress.

“Our phone lines on the House side are going to really light up," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. "People, at least in my district, are starting to get engaged finally after realizing the Senate is really going to go ahead and do something that most people do not support."

Indeed, House Republicans increasingly see themselves as a buffer against a Senate they say is moving too quickly and acting impulsively.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said the notion that overwhelming Senate action should compel the House to act ignores the American system of checks and balances. "Imprudence at one end, the Founders were hoping, would be countermanded by prudence at the other," Gohmert said. "And it goes both ways. Sometimes we've been imprudent and the Senate has helped rein us in."

It's unclear how many Republican senators will ultimately vote for the Gang of Eight proposal. The border-security amendment sponsored by GOP Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota attracted 15 Republican votes on Wednesday, and collected 69 votes total. And some aides think the tally for final passage of the bill could surpass 70.

But at the end of the day, House Republicans say, there is no "magic number" of Senate votes that will pressure them into passing comprehensive immigration reform.

"When we have 70 senators who have read every word of the bill,” Gohmert said, “then I'll be more persuaded.”