Becerra is holdout on House immigration group's 'agreement in principle'

There appears to be at least one remaining holdout within the bipartisan House immigration group that announced an “agreement in principle” on a far-reaching proposal Thursday: Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).

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The California liberal, who is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, has refused to say whether he has endorsed the verbal pact made Thursday evening by six of the eight members of the immigration group.

After Becerra would not say whether there was an agreement in the group as he left a two-hour meeting Thursday, another Democrat in the room, Rep. John Yarmuth (Ky.), said in an interview Friday that Becerra had declined to immediately sign on.

“He said, ‘I’m not ready to say there’s an agreement in principle,’” Yarmuth said of Becerra. “I think it just depends on what you’re understanding of what an agreement in principle is.”

The members of the group have steadfastly declined to discuss details of the emerging bill, saying they would meet again next week to finalize the draft. They hope to formally introduce the legislation by early June.

The group had met to consider the final sticking point of healthcare, and Becerra appears to want to see the final legislative language before he commits to the bill.

Asked directly on Friday whether he had joined the agreement, Becerra told The Hill. “I keep saying you’re not going to like my answer. We’re meeting. We’re making progress. We’re hoping to have something as soon as possible. We’re very close.”

Pressed to explain the different characterizations of the group’s status, Becerra declined.

“We agreed that we would try not to have conversations about our discussions until we’re ready to put something out there,” he said. “We continue to meet, and I think all of us are very hopeful after years of working on this.”

An aide to Becerra said after the interview that the congressman “agrees with his colleagues from the bipartisan working group that it's imperative to have a common-sense immigration reform proposal signed into law this year. He's committed to working with his colleagues in the group to get a bill on the floor and to get the job done right.”

The group has met in secret for more than four years and stumbled recently over the issues of a guest worker program and healthcare for immigrants. The negotiations came to a head this week when one Republican, Rep. John Carter (Texas), said a Thursday meeting would be the last he would attend. Either a deal would be struck, he warned, or Republicans would move ahead with legislation on their own.

Exiting the two-hour conclave, five members of the group declared an “agreement in principle”: Carter, Yarmuth, and Reps. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) participated by phone and was said by the others to have signed on. A fourth Republican in the group, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), did not attend the meeting because he was in the hospital after hernia surgery, members said.

Becerra is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and is close with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He has represented the leadership’s interests in other bipartisan groups that failed to reach agreements, including the congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction in 2011. Becerra was also a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission and was one of four Democrats on the panel to vote against its fiscal recommendations.

He sat on a House-Senate conference committee that did reach an agreement to briefly extend a payroll tax cut last year, and he has been a leading advocate of the Dream Act, which passed the House but not the Senate in 2010.

People close to the House group have suggested that Beccera is slowing down the effort to allow the Senate to first pass its bill, which is more favorable to liberal immigration reform advocates. The hope then would be that a broad bipartisan vote in the Senate would put pressure on Republican leaders in the House to take up that legislation. But GOP leadership aides have all but ruled out that possibility, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the House would “work its will” on immigration.

“They’re taking a real risk that it won’t work out if they go that route,” one aide close to the House group said of the strategy. Republicans “are going to be ready for it.”

Becerra’s office disputed the suggestion that the congressman was deliberately slowing down the House group.

Members of the House immigration group and outside advocates have hailed the agreement as a major step forward, but lawmakers have been quick to warn that the proposal has a long road ahead.

“The language hasn’t been written. There are lots of potential traps for it,” Yarmuth said.

Still, Diaz-Balart said there was nothing left to be decided that could break the bipartisan accord.

"There's no disagreement at all,” he told reporters Friday. “There's nothing that somebody's going to want to put in or change that it's going to blow this thing up because it's stuff that is, frankly ... disposable.”

“Nothing that could kill it,” he added.

— Mike Lillis contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 4:38 p.m.