House GOP cautious on Senate's bipartisan immigration blueprint

Key House Republicans are taking a cautious approach to the framework for comprehensive immigration reform that a bipartisan group of senators released Monday, refusing to endorse or condemn a development widely seen as a breakthrough.

The most critical — and potentially problematic — piece of the five-page set of principles remains its call for a “path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. that is “contingent upon securing the border and combating visa overstays.”

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The new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), said in a statement that any proposal for dealing with those currently in the country illegally would raise “a lot of questions.”

“When we look at proposals that deal with the legal status of 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S., we have a lot to discuss,” Goodlatte said. “The American people and members of Congress have a lot of questions about how this would work, what it would cost and how it will prevent illegal immigration in the future. This will have a huge impact on the American people, and so we have to carefully evaluate its impact.”

Goodlatte said the committee would “explore ways to fix our broken immigration system.”

The chairman of the subcommittee in charge of immigration, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), also took an open mind to the draft. "The current immigration system is broken and inspires confidence in no one,” he said in a brief statement. “So, proposals which balance the humanity which defines us as a people with respect for the rule of law which defines us as a republic are welcome.”

The eight senators who signed on to the framework included four Democrats — Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.) — and four Republicans, Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.).

The decision of Rubio, a rising conservative star, to join the effort could be crucial in attracting conservative support, and a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) specifically cited his involvement in a short response to the release of the blueprint.

“The Speaker welcomes the work of leaders like Sen. Rubio on this issue, and is looking forward to learning more about the proposal in the coming days,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.

The House has long been seen as the more challenging chamber for immigration reform because of the opposition of conservative Republicans to any proposal that smacks of “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants.

Given that history, the muted response from conservatives in the House is notable. In a question-and-answer session with the Ripon Society last week, Boehner said that a bipartisan group in the House “basically [has] an agreement” on immigration reform. That group, he said, included both “hard heads” in his own party and Democrats who have long pushed for comprehensive reform.

A House conservative who has taken a leading role in the lower chamber’s discussions on immigration, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), said the ideas released Monday were “good principles” that were similar to those that members of both parties in the House were discussing.

But he said the group’s proposal for a path to citizenship stuck out as a concern and would be “tough” to accept in the House.

“I think that’s going to be one of the sticking points between the House and the Senate,” Labrador said. “We have to be careful about rewarding people for illegal activity with citizenship.”

Labrador supports giving “some sort of legal status” to undocumented immigrants but not creating a “new pathway” to citizenship beyond the avenues currently available.

Labrador said he and other conservatives are looking for signs that President Obama wants a “policy victory” on immigration and not simply a “political victory” that comes from blaming Republicans for a failure to pass legislation. He called on the president not to “draw a line” on a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “So far as I can tell he hasn’t drawn that line,” Labrador said.

Labrador, who refused to vote for Boehner for Speaker earlier this month, would not comment on whether he was in the group that Boehner referenced to the Ripon Society or whether an agreement on immigration was close.

There was at least one notable exception to the restrained response from House conservatives to the Senate blueprint: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration," Smith said in a brief statement. "By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”

Mike Lillis contributed.