Steve King’s ‘Anti-Amnesty’ Coalition Emerges

Tim Alberta

Camps are forming among House conservatives in their rift over immigration, and for the first time, Rep. Steve King's hard-liner coalition is emerging publicly in opposition to comprehensive reform efforts.

The Iowa Republican who opposes citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already here illegally has referenced a group of 70 lawmakers who agree with his anti-amnesty position. And on Wednesday, some of them finally came forward to show their support, lending greater clarity to ideological fault lines emerging in the GOP-controlled House.

More than a dozen Republicans joined King for an hours-long rally he organized on the East Lawn of the U.S. Capitol to protest what immigration-reform supporters call a pathway to citizenship for those who came to the country illegally—a concept at the heart of the Senate's comprehensive immigration package.  

"I can feel it!" King cried from a podium, grinning ear-to-ear. Glenn Beck, the conservative media icon, had just whipped the crowd of tea-party activists into a frenzy. King, having bounded back on stage to greet him, continued: "I can feel we're going to defend the rule of law! We're going to defend the Constitution! We're going to defend our way of life!"

The House’s leading immigration hawk has spent months lamenting that his fellow “rule of law" conservatives—those who oppose legalizing the nation's undocumented immigrants—weren't speaking up. King worried in an interview this week that some Republicans were buying into the message of the pro-reform camp.

But by Wednesday afternoon, he seemed noticeably reassured on both fronts, energized by the crowd and encouraged by the support of his newly vocal coalition.

The camps are becoming clearer, King told National Journal during the rally. "But," he added, "ours is getting bigger."

Convinced that his views couldn't get a fair hearing in the halls of Congress, King organized the all-day event and invited activists and like-minded members to rally against "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. He couldn't have asked for better timing, or a bigger turnout. Thanks to an "Audit the IRS" rally on the West Lawn of the Capitol— which didn't start until later in the morning—King's event drew thousands of people waving "Don't Tread On Me" flags and carrying signs that read: "The Melting Pot Floweth Over."

Before Wednesday, it was not certain, save for a few notable exceptions, which Republicans were part of King's coalition, publicly opposed to the Senate's Gang of Eight immigration reform bill or any other attempt to legalize people who came to the U.S. unlawfully.

But between the morning and afternoon sessions of King’s rally, 13 House Republicans addressed the crowd: Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas; Rep. Randy Weber of Texas; Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana; Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming; Rep. Ted Yoho of Texas; Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota; Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia;Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania; Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California; Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania; Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania; Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah; and  Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia. Several other members—Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina among them—attended the event but did not speak.

If King has 70 House Republicans in his camp—and he might, according to some Hill aides—scores of them didn't show up on Wednesday. But those who did launched an unabashed attack on their pro-reform colleagues in the House and Senate.

Fleming likened the legislative process behind the Senate bill to that of "Obamacare," saying: "Same road, same mistakes." Lummis tied the immigration effort to the IRS and Benghazi investigations, encouraging the activists in attendance to "keep up" the pressure on their elected officials. Yoho pulled out a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, and challenged his pro-reform colleagues in both chambers to explore its contents.

Bachmann received the most boisterous welcome of any speaker Wednesday morning, and greeted the crowd like a conquering hero, calling the event "a beautiful family reunion." At a glance, it could have been; the crowd was almost exclusively white. At one point, a young Hispanic man was spotted working the crowd. But his presence was unwelcome: He was handing out fliers advocating for the DREAM Act.

Bachmann, who delivered the closing remarks of the morning session, invited dozens of children onto the stage as she argued that bad immigration policy could imperil their future. "Amnesty costs a fortune," she told the crowd, cradling an infant in her arms. "It could also cost us our nation." The crowd responded with booming chants of "U-S-A!"

A common theme was the need for increased border security, and the failures of the 1986 "Amnesty Act" that gave citizenship to 3 million illegal immigrants without closing off the border as promised. At one point, King mocked lawmakers who dismissed the viability of a 2,000-mile fence. "Have you seen the Great Wall of China?" King said to cheers.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made a surprise appearance at the event. The only member of the upper chamber to attend, Cruz said his colleagues in the Senate are pushing the same plan that was promised—and never delivered—in 1986. "If you fool me once, shame on you," Cruz said. "If you fool me twice, shame on me."

King and several other speakers expressed skepticism that the House leadership would protect their conservative principles, despite Boehner's promise Tuesday not to bring an immigration bill to the floor without the support of a majority of Republicans. King said he believes Boehner is "moving closer to our rule-of-law position," but said he still worries that a bill negotiated in a conference between the House and Senate could wind up coming to the floor without similar consent.

The longest and most emotional speech belonged to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who recently authored a controversial study on the fiscal impact of immigration reform. Rector's homily, delivered in a sometimes-screeching tone, challenged Tuesday's report from the Congressional Budget Office, which he said is "always wrong" with its scoring. (He then cited CBO's finding that the Senate bill would lower wages for American workers.)

Rector warned about "cradle-to-the-grave" entitlements for new residents, emphasized that illegal immigrants have "on average a 10th-grade education," and attacked Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Rector said "hasn't read his own bill."

King said earlier this week that he'd invited several pro-reform Republicans—including Rubio, the most high-profile member of the Gang of Eight—to attend Wednesday's rally. If Rubio accepted, King said with a laugh, they could "have a Lincoln-Douglas style debate" in front of the crowd.

Rubio did not attend, of course. But there were loud, cascading boos at nearly every mention of his name.