Boehner hire alarms foes of ‘amnesty’

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Speaker John Boehner’s decision to hire a well-known advocate of immigration reform is raising concerns among the House’s most ardent opponents of legislation.

Boehner this week announced he was bringing on Rebecca Tallent, a former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who has worked on multiple comprehensive proposals that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

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The move drew strong praise from immigration reform advocates, who viewed it as a clear signal Boehner intends to bring a bill to the House floor in 2014.

But for some opponents of an immigration overhaul, the hire is seen as cause for alarm.

“It’s a very big concern for me,” Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said, “because I don’t want to see any new bills come forward and I don’t want to see any new laws on the books until we secure the border and start enforcing the laws that we have today. Why do anything else?”

Broun is emphasizing his conservative bona fides in a primary battle for an open Senate seat in Georgia. He is one of a number of House Republicans who have vowed to oppose any immigration proposals — even crackdowns on border security — on the premise that they could lead to an unacceptable compromise with the Senate.

Tallent, who also worked for former GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), started her job in the Speaker’s office on Wednesday after serving as director of immigration policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center. She was McCain’s chief of staff in 2006 and 2007, when he was writing comprehensive immigration legislation that included a path to citizenship.

“I think it’s a very strong signal sent by the Speaker as to what his intentions might be,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration reform foe who has watched Boehner’s moves closely over the past year.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) also voiced concern, saying that McCain’s stance on immigration put him “totally out of touch with the rank-and-file Republicans throughout the country.”

“To hire somebody who was directing him on that issue — it didn’t help John McCain and it isn’t going to help us,” Rohrabacher said.

Boehner on Thursday reiterated his commitment to tackling immigration reform, but he has frustrated advocates by refusing to offer a timetable for action and by avoiding taking a position on the most contentious aspects of an overhaul.

In nods to conservatives in the GOP conference, Boehner has ruled out taking up the Senate-passed immigration bill and has vowed that no proposal would come up for a vote without the support of a majority of House Republicans. He has said the House would take up immigration legislation piece by piece, and last month he went a step further by ruling out negotiations on the full Senate bill.

Still, King said he has “never accepted the idea that amnesty was foreclosed by the Speaker’s words.”

The hiring of Tallent, he said, “adds up to the message that they’re at least setting the stage to be able to bring some type of immigration through this House with some kind of strategy. And I can tell you emphatically there is nothing good that can be passed out of the House of Representatives with regard to immigration that has a chance to get through the Senate and a signature from the president.”

“Any kind of initiative like that would split our conference,” King said.

Concern over Boehner’s decision to hire Tallent is far from universal among conservatives opposed to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Lamar Smith (Tex.) and Tim Huelskamp (Kan.) all told The Hill they had no problem with the move.

“As far as process goes, the Speaker is certainly free to hire whomever he wishes for whatever purpose, but members are going to speak out very forcefully on the issue,” Bachmann said.

Huelskamp said Boehner has “made it clear and kept his word we’re not doing immigration this year, and if we do it’s a piecemeal approach. But a path to citizenship he’s well aware is not going to pass in the House.”

“The position of conservatives and the conference is the same,” Huelskamp said. “There is strong opposition to any amnesty bill, and there are folks pushing, but they haven’t made much progress. So changing one staffer doesn’t change much.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel declined to comment beyond a statement he issued on Wednesday, when he said Boehner “remained hopeful” Congress could enact “step-by-step immigration reforms” and that Tallent was a “great addition to our team and that effort.”

McCain and another GOP author of the Senate immigration bill, Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), each praised Tallent in Twitter posts after Boehner’s announcement.

“Immigration reform just got kicked up a notch or two,” Flake wrote.

Tallent also drew support from a more conservative Arizona Republican on immigration, former Rep. John Shadegg, who worked with her recently on an immigration task force after opposing the bills that McCain and Flake wrote while he served in the House.

“It’s an excellent hire,” said Shadegg, who is now a lobbyist at Steptoe and Johnson. “The criticism … is not made by people who know her or know her record.”

Shadegg said that in his work with Tallent over the last year, “she never advocated amnesty.”

“She was always seeking middle ground,” he said.