Scalise election could mean slim chance for immigration

Greg Nash

Opponents of immigration reform think Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) will push his conference to the right on the issue, when he formally joins the House leadership — and those who support more liberal rules fear they might be right.

Scalise was elected last week as majority whip, the third-ranked position in the chamber’s Republican leadership. In the past, he has aligned himself with the staunchest opponents of immigration reform in the GOP, including Rep. Steve King of Iowa. 

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When King put forth a pair of bills that would have ended birthright citizenship and established English as the nation’s official language, Scalise signed on as a co-sponsor.

Scalise’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would advocate for consideration of those bills in his new leadership role. But, even so, the fundamentals of his position please many of those who are most skeptical of current reform proposals.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who with King called for a delay in the leadership election so the House GOP could field a majority leader candidate who did not support “amnesty,” said Scalise is aligned with her views.

“He told me, and I take him at his word, that he does not support legalization for illegal aliens. And that’s the position that I was looking for,” Bachmann said of Scalise. “I’m pleased that he was able to secure his position.”

Even the tone Scalise uses about immigration strikes a starkly different tone from the two people who will serve above him in his party’s upper echelons, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and newly elected incoming Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

“Scalise is opposed to giving amnesty to the millions of illegal immigrants currently living in our country. He does not want to reward those who have committed a crime. Amnesty programs will only encourage more illegal aliens to cross our borders and drain our nation’s resources,” his website proclaims.

By contrast, Boehner and McCarthy have indicated support for some means of immigration reform.

McCarthy, whose district is 35 percent Hispanic, has said he backs giving illegal immigrants legal status short of citizenship.

Asked about immigration reform on Sunday, however, he told Fox News that, until the U.S. borders are secured, “you cannot have a conversation about anything else.”

Immigration reform was also among the factors that led to outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) recent primary loss. His opponent, Dave Brat, accused Cantor of supporting “amnesty” and credited his victory to the issue.

Cantor was never viewed as a particularly assertive advocate for an immigration overhaul. But he did express support for creating a path for illegal immigrant children and those who serve in the military to gain legal status.

Cantor’s primary defeat sparked suggestions that the chances of immigration reform this year were doomed, but some Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), pushed back.

“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Cantor’s loss makes it easier, not harder, for House leadership to pass immigration reform,” he said.

“There’s a change in leadership, obviously, with Cantor’s loss and so we have an opportunity with a new team in place in the House to act,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

But Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), the first Republican to sign onto the House Democrats’ comprehensive immigration bill and the sponsor of a measure to give citizenship to illegal immigrants who serve in the military, predicted more of the same. 

“I don’t think the changes in leadership affect immigration reform,” Denham said.

Bachmann said she hoped, in the future, Scalise would be joined by new members of the leadership team who are just as strongly against providing illegal immigrants with legal status.

“I’m hoping in November, we will have at least one person who will proffer themselves for Speaker who will not be in support of legalization, and for all of the various leadership posts,” Bachmann said.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a vocal advocate for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, said Scalise’s promotion into the leadership hierarchy highlights the GOP’s dilemma on the issue.

“The Republican Party has to make a decision,” Gutiérrez said. “Do they want to be a regional party, in which Mr. Scalise will thrive, or do they want to be a national party?”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Scalise’s increased prominence would further stall movement on immigration.

“He added nothing to the conversation, and as [whip], all he can do is continue to be a more effective obstructionist,” Grijalva said.