On the first day of a House Republican retreat designed to unify the GOP caucus around a message for the 2014 election year, House Speaker John Boehner unveiled a framework for immigration reform that could tear the caucus apart if members cannot agree on the scope and timing of the controversial proposal that has roiled Republicans for decades.
Boehner said as much when he addressed reporters Thursday morning. “This problem’s been around for at least the last 15 years. It’s been turned into a political football. I think it’s unfair,” Boehner said. “I think it’s time to deal with it. But how we deal with it is going to be critically important.”
The issue pits conservative House members, most of whom have few Latinos in their heavily Republican districts, against national GOP leaders and state-wide office holders who are urging the party to be more inclusive of Hispanics, who make up the country’s fastest-growing demographic.
“This is something that clearly is more of a legacy issue for Republican leaders in the House than it is a maneuver for political protection in 2014,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report. “No leader wants to be remembered as the head of a ‘Do-nothing Congress.’ And at the same time these leaders know that their party is unlikely to be a broad, big-tent party if it does not address immigration.”
Included in Boehner’s one-page set of “immigration principles” are a call to further secure American borders, create a guest-worker program, modernize visa tracking and employment verification, and grant citizenship to undocumented children brought to the U.S. as minors. The most controversial principle would allow millions of unauthorized immigrants to “come forward and get right with the law” with a path to legalization, but not “a special path to citizenship.”
A path to citizenship was a key piece of the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration-reform bill embraced by labor and business leaders, but Boehner’s caucus made it clear to the speaker that a similar proposal would not pass the House.
Even with the scaled-back legalization language, conservative activists blasted the principles moments after they became public Thursday afternoon. Powerline blog called the proposal “a Death Warrant for Conservatism,” while Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, called the document “a full-throated embrace of amnesty.”
“The fact that people who are here illegally are immediately allowed to reside here legally gives them a huge leg up over people trying to do things the right way,” Holler told The Daily Beast.
Anticipating heat from the right, top Republicans have suggested holding off on House action until after filing deadlines and even primaries passed, a delay that would let sitting Republican members wait until after they have faced conservative primary voters at home.
“It’s probably months out,” said Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the House GOP election efforts, on the timing of a House immigration vote. “The point would be most of the primaries would’ve faded by then anyway. By the time you get to June, most of them are behind you.”
“Two years is a long time in politics. They take the vote this summer and they don’t have to explain it for another two years.”
As the calendar moves into the summer and fall, immigration advocates hope that Republicans in swing districts, as well as the 37 House Republicans whose districts are more than 20 percent Latino, will be more inclined to support reform going into the general election.
A senior Democratic aide who has worked for years on the House’s immigration-reform effort acknowledged that “timing of the bill is a big part of it.”
“Some Republicans were getting spooked by their challengers, but they swore they were in this and think it’s the right thing to do,” the aide said. “Two years is a long time in politics. They take the vote this summer and they don’t have to explain it for another two years. By then, the presidential ticket will have been put into action, the bill is a law, and the sky hasn’t fallen.”
But Holler of Heritage Action warned that an effort to dodge the primary calendar could backfire on Republicans. “Either way, it’s going to be bad policy and it’s going to be dumb politics when it comes to November,” he said.
“Certainly folks are going to feel, if they do this game on timing, people outside of Washington are smart enough to understand that. They will probably be more displeased if they see them trying to game the system.“
And across Capitol Hill, Sen. Ted Cruz said Republicans should not take the bill up at all this year.
“Anyone pushing an amnesty bill right now should go ahead and put a ‘Harry Reid for Majority Leader’ bumper sticker on their car, because that will be the likely effect if Republicans refuse to listen to the American people and foolishly change the subject from Obamacare to amnesty,” Cruz said in a statement to Breitbart.com.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform group that has been working on Capitol Hill throughout the process, said that predicting the timing of a legislative proposal from Republicans on immigration may be assuming too much about a caucus that has been gun-shy on immigration reform since President George W. Bush’s reform effort failed spectacularly in 2007.
“I'm still very concerned that the Republicans can get their act together and come forward with a proposal that a majority of Republicans in the House will back,” Sharry said. “That to me is the first hurdle we face.”
—Ben Jacobs contributed to this report.