Immigration showdown at GOP retreat

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Top House Republicans will face growing skepticism from reform-minded conservatives when they pitch their principles for an immigration overhaul Thursday at the party’s annual retreat.

In interviews over the last several days, conservatives said that while they expect the principles to be broadly acceptable, they are less inclined to support a push by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and others to advance specific legislative proposals heading into the midterm election campaign.

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“I think the willingness to go so far as specific legislation has cooled considerably for different reasons over the course of the last couple weeks,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said Wednesday.

The principles will include support for giving probationary legal status to many illegal immigrants, Ryan confirmed in an interview Wednesday on MSNBC. That would be distinct from a so-called “special path to citizenship” that Republicans have long opposed.

Republican leaders have acknowledged that the reception of the rank and file at the retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore will be critical to the decision of whether to move forward.

“We’re going to outline our standards, principles for immigration reform and have a conversation with our members, and once that conversation is over, we’ll have a better feel for what our members have in mind,” Boehner said during a press conference. 

When President Obama renewed his call for action on immigration reform during his State of the Union address, he won applause from Ryan and GOP leaders Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.) and Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), but most House Republicans sat in silence.

Earlier Tuesday, a number of House lawmakers voiced concerns about the coming immigration push inside a meeting of the conservative Republican Study Committee, lawmakers and aides said.

Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), a freshman running for an open Senate seat, stood up to tell his colleagues that “the worst thing we could do for his race would be to take up immigration,” Mulvaney said.

Mulvaney is close to Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), two conservatives who have worked on immigration proposals. Leadership will likely need to win them over in the coming weeks.

Labrador has publicly questioned the wisdom of moving ahead with legislation that could divide the conference, and Gowdy, the chairman of the House Judiciary Immigration subcommittee, has privately told colleagues that while immigration reform would help the GOP during the 2016 presidential election, it would hurt the party’s efforts this year. 

That matches a sentiment voiced in recent weeks by Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the second-ranking Senate Republican.

“You can probably look to the Senate to see what [immigration] does to Republican unity,” Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) said, referring to the June vote on immigration reform that won support from just 14 of 45 Senate Republicans. “It’s a very divisive issue, a very difficult issue. It’s one that you have to thread very delicately.

“Whether it should be dealt with now, this year, this time, this day or another, that’s another question, I imagine,” Graves said.

The final compromise on the farm bill, which passed the House despite 63 Republican defections on Wednesday, has also soured conservatives who had hoped that it could serve as a model process for immigration reform, Mulvaney said. After pressuring the GOP leadership to ignore a broad Senate-passed measure and split up the farm bill in the House, conservatives were disappointed to see it emerge from a conference committee in one piece and with significantly fewer cuts and reforms than they wanted.

“I would be lying to you if I said that the farm bill didn’t hurt,” Mulvaney said. “There are many of us who believe that we didn’t do very well at conference and we are concerned that if that is the model going forward, that it makes it very dangerous if we go to conference [on immigration], and that it may be better for us to wait to go to actual legislation.”

Those concerns come on top of long-standing conservative complaints that they cannot trust the Obama administration to enforce any new immigration bill that they pass, an obstacle cited both by Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in separate appearances Wednesday.

Along with Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Ryan has emerged as the most vocal advocate of moving forward on immigration reform, and his argument at the retreat will likely be important.

On MSNBC, Ryan said the principles would outline a bill that would allow immigrants living in the country illegally to “come out of the shadows” to receive a probationary work permits.

To get out of the probationary status and receive a regular work permit, triggers for border security and interior enforcement would have to be met and independently verified. 

Those immigrants would also have to pay a fine, learn English and civics, and prove that they are not on welfare.

At that point, they would be able to apply for a green card for permanent residency through regular procedures.

In addition to border and interior security, the principles will also likely call for a guest-worker program, increased high-skilled visas and a path to legal status citizenship for children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.

Conservative opponents of a reform push in both chambers are trying to build pressure by organizing against any action in the House.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) on Wednesday sent a 30-page memo to all House Republican offices outlining the arguments against a broad overhaul of immigration laws.

The document argued that the House GOP should not help pass “the president’s immigration plan” but should draft an agenda that helps discouraged American workers find jobs.

“House Republicans, in crafting immigration principles, should reply to the president’s immigration campaign with a simple message: Our focus is to help unemployed Americans get back to work — not to grant amnesty or to answer the whims of immigration activists and CEOs,” the memo said.

Mario Trujillo and Mike Lillis contributed.