Kevin McCarthy’s immigration problem: conservative loyalty vs. California ag interests

When California Congressman Kevin McCarthy ran for speaker of the House in 2015, a lack of conservative support sunk his bid.

Lately, though, the right has been warming to McCarthy, cheering his public stand in favor of immigration restrictions and defense of President Trump’s immigration demands.

“Leader McCarthy is probably the closest member of House leadership to President Trump,” said R.J. Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors strict immigration limits. That gives Hauman’s group confidence that the Bakersfield-area Republican understands “the core issues that President Trump ran on,” he said, starting with immigration.

“We also believe he really understands the importance of not selling out on immigration,” Hauman said.

That faith is about to be put to the test. With the Senate debating and voting on proposals to preserve protections for young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” this week, McCarthy and other Republican leaders in the House are facing a decision on whether to move forward with an immigration bill of their own. Conservative lawmakers have been demanding a vote on a restrictive bill from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bill Goodlatte that is problematic for many GOP moderates, not to mention McCarthy’s home state.

The Goodlatte legislation would hit California especially hard in two ways. It would step up enforcement of agricultural workers’ status via E-verify and mandate a sweeping overhaul of the guest workers program that’s been condemned by the farm industry. And it would punish local jurisdictions that enact sanctuary policies like the ones California and many of its cities have embraced, threatening violators with cuts to federal law enforcement funds. Both proposals go well beyond the parameters the president has set out for the immigration negotiations.

McCarthy’s spokesman, Matt Sparks, told The Bee that the House majority leader believes the Goodlatte bill “is a good bill,” though he did not go as far as endorsing it. “With the ongoing member-listening sessions to address concerns he is confident it can become an even stronger bill for the floor,” he said. On Tuesday evening, Goodlatte introduced amendments aimed at addressing some of the complaints from the agriculture industry.

McCarthy represents some powerful forces in that industry. His district encompasses most of Kern County – the heart of California farming and the fourth largest agricultural producing county in the country, according to the Bakersfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. He also is working hard to protect fellow Republicans in California’s Central Valley, Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, whom Democrats are targeting in the mid-term elections this fall. As it stands, the Goodlatte bill would be tough to sell in those districts.

The right, however, is not interested in making too many more concessions. “It will kill the bill,” warned Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson, a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. Cutting out the punishments for sanctuary policies, for example, would be a deal-breaker, conservative lawmakers said.

And the Freedom Caucus and its allies are growing impatient with House leaders, who they are accusing of dragging their feet. “The Senate is actually beating us to the critical issue of the day on immigration. That shouldn’t have happened,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina said. Meadows called the debate over legal status for so-called “Dreamers” and other immigration provisions “the defining moment” for Ryan and the party.

As McCarthy well knows, the past two decades are littered with failed bipartisan efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, despite broad agreement that it is “broken.” The Republican base has been particularly unforgiving of members who, in their eyes, go too far in their bid at compromise.

As Republicans’ second in command in the House, McCarthy would be the the obvious choice to succeed Ryan when the latter steps down, which some reports suggest could be later this year. He can ill-afford to dent his credentials with the right, as some are not-so-subtly reminding him.

McCarthy “has a future that he needs to think about,” Freedom Caucus member and Goodlatte bill co-sponsor Raul Labrador told Breitbart News last month. “He needs to decide whether he will stand with the American people or not” on immigration.

It’s quite a political hot potato that Ryan tossed his deputy when he tasked McCarthy with negotiating a deal on immigration at the beginning of this year.

He’s serving as the voice of House Republicans in negotiations with leaders of both parties from the House and Senate. According to Sparks, those meetings continue on a weekly basis. The “conversations have been productive and will continue as we drive toward a solution on several aspects of our broken immigration system,” he said.

Democrats, however, have dismissed them as little more than show, an attempt by Republican leaders to avoid making decisions while waiting for action from the White House. And rank-and-file lawmakers have pushed ahead with their own talks and proposals, which seem to be making far more headway.

If nothing else, however, those talks have thrust McCarthy into the center of the national immigration debate. And while the ambitious lawmaker is not known for being a policy wonk or a behind the scenes dealmaker, he has proven an effective pitchman for Trump’s policies. Even, it turns out, when the person he’s pitching to is the president himself.

For the immigration hardliners, McCarthy’s stand-out moment came during a nationally televised January 9 meeting on immigration at the White House. It was a highly unusual spectacle – a fraught policy negotiation playing out in real time – and McCarthy was involved in what was probably its most pivotal moment. California Senator Dianne Feinstein lobbied Trump to support legislation authorizing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the program the White House plans to end on March 5.

The president started to agree with her, before McCarthy interjected. “Mr. President, you need to be clear though,” he warned. “When we talk about just DACA, we don’t want to be back here two years later. We have to have security.” He also reminded Feinstein and other Democrats that they’d supported border security measures and other immigration restrictions in the past.

“McCarthy intervened and reminded [viewers] that people like Feinstein and Schumer voted on a border wall,” said Hausman. “It was really impressive to see him take a stand in the room at the White House with some of these Democratic leaders.”

But some of the voices who were cheering McCarthy in January are now notably silent. Officials for Numbers USA and Center for Immigration Studies, two groups advocating for tough immigration enforcement, told Breitbart last month they were impressed with McCarthy. Both declined to comment for this piece.

Republican strategists believe McCarthy and fellow GOP leaders have one major asset in the immigration debate their predecessors did not: a president that has unquestionable credibility with the right. Immigration is “a big issue for [Trump], which really helps shield the Speaker and the leadership,” said John Feehery, an aide to former House GOP leaders Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert. If the president gets behind specific DACA legislation, it’s likely a majority of Republicans will follow.

For McCarthy, though, that’s only part of the political test. While he is secure in his congressional seat, Republicans can’t afford to lose seats like Denham and Valadao’s if they hope to preserve their majority in the House. Winning favor with the right won’t mean nearly as much for McCarthy if the GOP loses its grasp on Congress in 2018.

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei