Top House Republican leaders' ambitious plans to tackle immigration this year may already be in trouble before the House Speaker has even had a chance to unveil his ideas on how to fix problems that have long plagued the nation and, more recently, divided the GOP.
Republicans on Wednesday kick off a three-day retreat where leaders are expected, among other initiatives, to call for legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will unveil his legislative outline that’s also likely to include strengthening border security, adding more high tech visas, and revamping the guest worker program.
But several members of the influential Republican Study Committee say a consensus is growing that bringing immigration to the floor this year is a bad idea and could seriously hurt the party in an otherwise positive looking year. There were subdued cheers on the Republican side of the gallery during the State of the Union Tuesday night when President Barack Obama called for immigration reform this year.
“It’s time,” Obama said.
Hours beforehand, members and staff of the Republican Study committee huddled on Capitol Hill. Several stood up and expressed concerns that an explosive debate on immigration could wipe out Republican political gains over Obama’s healthcare plan.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., the Republican Policy Committee chairman, was among those who spoke out against pursuing immigration this year. Lankford said in an interview after the State of the Union that opposition is strong against any large scale proposal that includes legalization of illegal immigrants. But he said the main concern Republicans have is with Obama who is not seen as a trustworthy partner willing to seriously address some of the tougher problems of enforcement.
“I do think we should reform immigration, this is a very serious issue, but this has all the appearance of just being a political game instead of solving a problem,” said Lankford, the fifth ranking House Republican. He’s announced he’s running for Senate.
Even some of the most devoted supporters for an overhaul have backed away. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who helped lead a failed bipartisan effort for a comprehensive solution, said Tuesday night that he expects committee members as well as a majority of the Republican coalition to recommend against pursuing leadership’s plans.
He cited the State of the Union and Obama statement’s about bypassing Congress to pass executive orders on minimum wage increases and other issues.
“He’s willing to go around Congress to do things that we’re unwilling to pass, why would we trust him,” Labrador said.
The issue will be brought before all House members this week at the retreat.
“The Speaker believes we need to act, in a step-by-step way, to start to fix America’s broken immigration system," said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
Boehner and other Republican leaders want to solve the immigration issue as part of efforts to change the perception of the GOP to be a more welcoming party to a growingly diverse electorate. President Obama won a second term with more than 70 percent of the Latino vote.
The Speaker has demonstrated that he’s serious about taking up the immigration debate this year. He hired new staff that have worked on comprehensive plans and publicly criticized outside groups known to oppose immigration.
But not having the support of the Republican Study Committee would be a blow to him and the immigration debate. The influential committee is made up of more than 160 conservative members of the coalition.
Boehner could conceivably move, but he’s unlikely to do so. Any effort to steamroll conservatives and work out a deal with Democrats would risk his speakership.
Staffers for the Republican Study Committee acknowledged immigration concerns were raised at Tuesday’s meeting, but said it was more part of a broader discussion on several issues that the members will take up during the retreat. No official recommendations were made for or against pursuing immigration this year, staff said.
But multiple attendees who spoke to McClatchy about the meeting said the opposition is strong. Some raised concerns that the debate could hurt several Republican Senate candidates as well as derail chances of taking over the majority of the upper chamber.
The discussion lasted about 15 minutes with about eight or nine members speaking out against the plan, according to Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is one of the staunchest opponents against giving legal status to the undocumented. No one, he said, spoke in favor of leadership’s plan.
“If one were to listen to that discussion, they could easily conclude there was solid consensus that debating immigration this year is a bad idea,” King said. “A very solid consensus in that room.”
Some discussed recent editorials from leading conservative journals that advised Boehner to abandon the immigration effort.
The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol advised an explosive debate could “blow up GOP chances for a good 2014.”
“The basic tactical reason not to act now is that the last thing the party needs is a brutal intramural fight when it has been dealt a winning hand on Obamacare,” editors for the National Review wrote. “It is not as though the public is clamoring for an immigration bill”.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said she was not sure that the committee would stake out an official position on the immigration.
“But I do know that a critical mass of members will declare an all out war on this subject,” she said. “We won’t let it go.”