How immigration died, part 2: Boehner bails on bipartisan legislation (Video)

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This article is the second of a two-part series on immigration.

Two Texas Republicans were about to take a leap. A big one.

Reps. John Carter and Sam Johnson had worked for more than four years to craft a bipartisan immigration overhaul, risking their political reputations to join with liberal Democrats on the kind of legislation that many conservatives reviled.

[Earlier: White House, Senate put squeeze on House Dems]

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In the summer of 2013, the 500-page bill was written, reviewed and endorsed by their four Democratic colleagues. But Carter and Johnson needed something more — a commitment from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that the proposal would move and not be left hanging for immigration reform foes like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to use for target practice.

Boehner wouldn’t give it to them.

Time and again, the Speaker’s response was the same: Finish your work, introduce your bill and we’ll see what happens.

“Why should we risk our political capital?” Carter said. “Our leadership is not willing to move forward.”

Back home in their districts over the August recess, the two faced criticism from constituents and conservative groups.

Carter cited the “vitriol” of critics who opposed the very premise of immigration reform.

When lawmakers returned to Washington in September, heated debates over a military intervention in Syria and then a government shutdown consumed the Capitol. The bipartisan group of seven never met again in person. On Sept. 20, Carter and Johnson announced their withdrawal in a lengthy public statement that blamed the Obama administration for its selective enforcement of immigration law and its move to delay the healthcare employer mandate.

“If past actions are the best indicators of future behavior; we know that any measure depending on the president’s enforcement will not be faithfully executed,” Carter and Johnson said. “It would be gravely irresponsible to further empower this administration by granting them additional authority or discretion with a new immigration system.”

The exit of Carter and Johnson, two of the group’s original members four years earlier, was the fatal blow for an effort that had already been severely weakened months earlier by the departure of another conservative, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho).

While it was internal squabbles and outside interference that undercut Democrats in the group, it was ultimately a lack of political will that sapped Republicans, according to interviews with negotiators and their key advisers.

“There was a lot of will upfront, and over time that will waned,” a Democrat involved in the talks said.

 

THE HARD-LINER ENTERS, AND EXITS

Labrador had joined the group in January to replace Republicans who had left Congress since the discussions first began. A sophomore firebrand who had withheld his vote from Boehner for Speaker, he was seen as key to getting support from many of the younger, Tea Party-aligned conservatives elected to the House in 2010 and 2012.

A longtime immigration attorney, Labrador both impressed and infuriated Democrats in the group with his command of, and obsession with, the practical details of the legislation.

“We always had some concerns that he was going to be difficult, but he actually was very constructive in the process,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said.

Labrador embraced the role of hardliner, and he chafed at what he saw as attempts by Democrats to reopen agreements in the bill, on issues like a requirement that immigrants pay back taxes as a condition for legal status, that he thought were settled.

Democrats involved in the talks described him as “explosive” and “volatile” at times, yet they also viewed his expertise on immigration law as invaluable. It was Labrador, for example, who worked with Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) to soften Carter’s original stipulation that immigrants in the country illegally appear before a federal judge before they could receive probationary status to remain in the country.

As the group neared an agreement in the spring, Labrador — who has eyed higher office — drew a bright line on healthcare: immigrants in a probationary status would have to be responsible for their own insurance, and they could not receive any taxpayer subsidies, particularly any offered under the new healthcare reform law.

Democrats had conceded the point, and a provision in the Senate bill explicitly barred immigrants on the path to citizenship from receiving Obama-Care subsidies. But as Labrador demanded even more explicit legislative language, Democrats feared he was using the immigration bill to re-open President Obama’s signature law, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) became concerned that Democratic negotiators were overstepping their bounds by negotiating on healthcare.

The White House also weighed in, with Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough voicing concerns to Democratic negotiators about the healthcare issue.

Pelosi brought in an author of the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), and other senior Democrats to help draft language that would satisfy Labrador without creating a scenario in which immigrants could face deportation if they got into an accident or were diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t pay emergency hospital bills.

The two sides exchanged proposals for more than a week, and Democrats even enlisted Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to help broker an agreement on healthcare and persuade Labrador to stay in the group. Ryan, the popular House GOP budget chief and a supporter of immigration reform, did try to keep Labrador from leaving, an aide said, but to no avail.

Labrador left in early June, unpersuaded on the healthcare issue and convinced that the White House and Democratic leaders would not allow their negotiators to sign onto a bill more conservative than the Senate’s Gang of Eight proposal.

The remaining seven announced they were moving forward with an agreement in principle, and they set about putting the finishing touches on the bill. But they knew Labrador’s exit had dealt a critical blow, jeopardizing their chances of winning significant conservative support.

  

MAJORITY OF THE MAJORITY

A preoccupation of the group both before and after Labrador’s departure was the question of how many Republican votes the bill could ultimately garner from the conservative House GOP conference.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) repeatedly assured Republicans that Democrats could deliver a vast majority of their conference — as many as 180 votes, Yarmuth said — if necessary. Republicans couldn’t counter with their own number, an uncertainty that frustrated the Democrats.

“We never whipped it,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said.

Labrador was hoping to achieve a bill that could win 150 Republican votes, a total that Democrats considered a pipe dream and would mean significant losses on their own side.

Diaz-Balart said the goal was always a majority of Republicans, even before Boehner publicly declared in late June that any immigration bill would have to cross that threshold to come to the floor.

“We talked about that a million times — strategy and everything,” Diaz-Balart said. “The fact remained that in order to move legislation in the House, we gotta get the majority plus one. That was just the reality.”

Yet as the weeks dragged on, it became clear to members of the group that the proposal would sink if it were introduced without a firm commitment from Boehner to push it forward. 

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Boehner in June, and many lawmakers emerged cautiously optimistic. Boehner had reminded them he broke with the Republican Conference in 2005 by opposing immigration legislation favored by hardliners. 

But the Speaker made no promises, and members took note that he urged them not to say nice things about him to reporters.

By the summer, Diaz-Balart said, he knew the group’s bill would not win support from a majority of Republicans without more changes. Conservatives regularly raised concerns that they could not trust the Obama administration to implement the security portions of the bill once it announced its unilateral decision to delay the employer mandate in the healthcare law.

“That was what broke the camel’s back,” Diaz-Balart said.

Democrats had long since given up hope on the conservative chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who publicly professed support for immigration reform but advanced piecemeal bills through his panel solely on party-line votes. He said repeatedly he looked forward to seeing the group’s bill, but he wouldn’t commit to giving it a vote in the committee.

“Goodlatte is not working to achieve immigration reform. He is working to scuttle it,” a Democrat involved in the talks said.

Goodlatte declined to comment, but a committee aide said he was “working hard to reform our broken immigration system, starting with enforcement.”

Time and again, Boehner’s response was the same. He wouldn’t go around or pressure Goodlatte, and he wouldn’t deem the group’s bill the official House plan.

Carter and Johnson wouldn’t officially withdraw until September, but Democrats knew the bill was dead.

“Before we left for recess, it was cooked,” Gutierrez said. “It wasn’t even on life support.”