How Steve King Will Kill Immigration Reform

Fawn Johnson
National Journal

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 that 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.

He solves it by saying no on everything.

King says he's supportive of the reform efforts in principle, but he says 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.

But 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 flack 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," he said.