By Russell Berman - 05/23/13 12:23 AM EDT
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her deputies must decide this week whether to back a tentative bipartisan agreement on immigration reform or place a risky bet on more favorable Senate legislation.
The choice could prove critical for the party on both policy and strategic grounds. Signing off on the House agreement would give Democratic backing to a proposal that is significantly more
conservative than legislation that has already won Republican votes in the Senate, and it could increase the likelihood that a final immigration bill moves even further to the right.
Yet some members of the bipartisan House group are worried that strategy could backfire. With President Obama weighed down by scandals and GOP leaders insisting the House will “work its will,” they are arguing privately that walking away from the bipartisan agreement could kill immigration reform altogether.
That is the stance of Republicans in the House immigration group who are critical of the Senate legislation that passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in a bipartisan, 13-5 vote.
“The Senate bill will die in the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Raúl Labrador (Idaho), a Republican negotiator. “If [Democrats] think they’re going to jam an immigration bill through the House of Representatives, they’re sadly mistaken.”
Tensions within the House group have increased in recent weeks, with irritation from both Republicans and Democrats aimed at Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the only one of four Democrats in the coalition who would not sign off on an agreement in principle that was struck last week. The question of how immigrants in the country illegally will receive and pay for healthcare has been the final sticking point.
Becerra is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and is close to Pelosi.
People familiar with the negotiations say Reps. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) believe that having the House pass its own bipartisan bill, even if it’s more conservative, will boost the chances of getting legislation to Obama’s desk through a House-Senate conference committee.
But Becerra and Pelosi are said to be unsure. “I think it’s Pelosi and I think it’s Becerra [holding it up],” one aide familiar with the negotiations said.
Becerra refused to discuss the details of the talks on Wednesday, but he told reporters, “If you want me to respond to whether or not I am trying to kill a deal, I would say absolutely not.”
A House Democratic leadership aide disputed the characterization that Pelosi is trying to slow-walk the House proposal, saying the leaders “are simply trying to clarify the language.”
“The leadership wants a bill. They want a House bill,” the aide said. “They feel it’s important to have a bipartisan House watermark on immigration. That is the strong preference of the House Democratic leadership.”
On Tuesday, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) praised the Senate bill and noted that the upper chamber was “far ahead” of the House in its work on immigration. But later in the day he insisted that House Democratic leaders were supportive of the bipartisan negotiations.
“We wants these talks to succeed,” Hoyer told reporters as he left a meeting between the leadership and the four Democratic members of the House immigration group.
The debate among top Democrats is, according to aides, a large part of what has delayed the completion of the House legislation, which members are aiming to complete this week after announcing a tentative — and potentially premature — “agreement in principle” a week ago.
People familiar with the talks say that Becerra wanted to see the final language on the healthcare provisions before committing to the agreement, and the Democrats in the group have met repeatedly with party leaders this week to discuss the matter.
Republicans have insisted that immigrants in a provisional legal status secure their own health insurance, and that the cost should not fall to the federal, state or local governments. Democrats have agreed that immigrants should not receive healthcare subsidies, but aides say they want to make sure, among other things, that immigrants who get treatment in an emergency room but cannot pay the bill do not face deportation.
Labrador said on Wednesday that the group has set a Thursday deadline for resolving the issue.
Another Republican negotiator, Rep. John Carter (Texas), voiced confidence the group would succeed. “We’re meeting [Thursday], and I’m very hopeful,” he said Wednesday.
The bipartisan talks continued as the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the Senate immigration bill, which largely served as an opportunity for conservatives on the panel to criticize the proposal.
“While I commend the Senate for their continuing efforts to tackle the extremely difficult task of reforming our broken system, I must observe that [the Senate bill] repeats many of the mistakes of the past,” the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), said in an opening statement.
In his questions to the panelists, which included two critics and one supporter of the Senate legislation, Goodlatte asked whether the bill gave too much power to the executive branch and whether any provision would “prevent the president from deciding not to enforcement the immigration laws.”
Goodlatte plans to introduce legislation on Thursday to increase visas for high-skilled immigrants, one in a series of individual immigration bills he wants to consider in the committee. He has not ruled out moving a comprehensive bill, but he has said the committee must move forward on immigration bills while the bipartisan House group tries to complete its proposal.