Bipartisan House immigration group reports ‘incredible progress’

A bipartisan House group is making “really good progress” on immigration reform legislation despite missing a target date for an agreement, a top Republican participant said.

“I am now more sure than ever that we’re going to have a bipartisan bill,” a longtime advocate of comprehensive reform, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said in an interview. “We’re making incredible progress.”

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Diaz-Balart is a member of a House group that includes more than a half dozen liberal and conservative lawmakers who have been working for years behind closed doors on an immigration overhaul. As talks accelerated in recent months, people involved in the effort said the group had hoped to announce an agreement around President Obama’s State of the Union address.

That date came and went, and now aides say that while the talks are ongoing, participants are not setting a deadline or target date for releasing legislation.

“There is no timetable. There is no target. There is no expiration date,” a House Democratic aide said.

Diaz-Balart said that the group hoped to unveil a bill soon but, as would be expected with any sensitive effort of this magnitude, lawmakers do not want to go public prematurely. Members are also wary of setting target dates out of the fear that if they are missed, it will send a signal that talks have stalled.

Diaz Balart would not discuss details of the group’s deliberations but said there are “still a couple of sticking points.”

A light legislative schedule in Washington has slowed face-to-face meetings of the group in recent weeks, but the hope is that the pace will quicken when the House is in session more frequently in March.

Lawmakers know the rollout of an immigration bill can be nearly as important as the substance and are trying to draw lessons from the failed push to overhaul the immigration system in 2006 and 2007.

One major takeaway, according to one veteran of that era, is that once a bill is introduced, it has to move quickly, because delay will allow critics to chip away at the proposal and unnerve the fragile coalition holding it together in Congress.

“The longer there is between the time you unveil the proposal and the time you vote on the proposal, the greater the likelihood that it will wind up not making it all the way through to passage,” said a former senior Bush administration official deeply involved in that effort. “Once you’ve got this thing baked, you’ve got to get it out of the oven and into the refrigerator and start eating it pretty quickly. Because if you let it sit on the table — I’m going to beat the metaphor to death — the ants will start eating the cake up.”

While a bipartisan coalition of eight senators released a set of agreed-upon principles in advance of legislation, the House group is working on legislative language in hopes of presenting a completed bill. Members of the Senate group have said they are hoping to unveil legislation in March.

The path to immigration reform is far more complicated in the lower chamber, where the Republican majority is dominated by conservatives who have long resisted a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is supporting the bipartisan group’s effort but has not committed to backing the legislation it produces.

On the House Judiciary Committee, which holds jurisdiction over immigration, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and other senior Republicans have voiced opposition to a path to citizenship that Democrats view as essential.

Some Democrats involved in the immigration push also raised concerns after Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the second-ranking Republican, delivered a policy speech in which he endorsed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant students brought to the U.S. as children but was silent on broader immigration reform. Democrats say that issue, which is the central tenet of the Dream Act, is essentially “yesterday’s news” and wondered whether Republican leaders were sending mixed signals.

Diaz Balart said he heard those concerns from Democrats and brought them up with party leaders. “We’ve had those conversations with leadership,” he said. “I am not concerned about leadership’s willingness to support immigration reform.” He cautioned, however, that the leadership had not committed specifically to backing the legislation the bipartisan group produced.

Not all Democrats viewed Cantor’s speech as a setback; some lawmakers and aides saw his endorsement of policy resembling the Dream Act as a sign of progress, since he had previously opposed the legislation. The majority leader also released a statement Thursday praising an agreement between labor and business on principles related to low-skilled immigration, which was seen as a key advancement for the broader reform effort.

The Democratic members of the House immigration group – Reps. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) — were unavailable for interviews, but aides backed up Diaz-Balart’s status report.

“If he’s optimistic, I would be optimistic,” one Democratic aide said.

Republicans say the bigger hurdle to reform is not their own leadership but President Obama. GOP lawmakers were angered by the leak last weekend of draft legislation the White House is preparing in case the effort in Congress stalls. The development deepened the suspicion held by Republicans that Obama wants to use the immigration issue as a political cudgel in 2014 more than he wants an actual bill to sign.

Diaz-Balart said the House and Senate would pass immigration reform despite the president, not because of him.

“I am absolutely sure he doesn’t want to get it done. But it doesn’t matter,” he said of Obama. “He’s not going to torpedo it.”