Rubio, Sessions work to woo House Republicans on immigration reform

Supporters and critics of comprehensive immigration reform pitched their ideas to House conservatives on Wednesday, seeking to win over a group that could determine whether the high-profile congressional effort succeeds or fails.

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) were among a dozen Republicans who journeyed to the House side of the Capitol and made presentations to the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) on immigration.

Rubio argued for the far-reaching Senate bill he has authored with the Gang of Eight even as he pushed to boost the legislation’s border security provisions before it receives a final floor vote.

Lawmakers described the meeting as an “airing of ideas” rather than a debate, but Rubio and his allies received confirmation — if any was needed — that conservatives in the House remain skeptical if not outright opposed to the border security element of the Senate bill.

“The bottom line is, there is a vibrant debate going on in the Republican Party,” Rubio told reporters after the hourlong meeting. “I can tell you that the bill as currently structured isn’t going to pass in the House, and I think it’s going to struggle to pass in the Senate.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other members of the House GOP leadership have already vowed not simply to “take up and pass” the Senate bill, and they appear to be moving toward a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, briefed conservatives on his plans to advance individual bills related to immigration reform through the committee in the coming weeks.

Goodlatte’s approach was well-received in the RSC meeting, members said.

“I think it’s the best way to move the issue forward in the House,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said afterward.

GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Ted Cruz (Texas) also spoke at the meeting.

An overarching concern expressed in the meeting was a desire to fix the immigration system “once and for all,” members said, so that Congress does not need to return to the issue in the future.

“There are some who don’t want any immigration reform, a path to citizenship, but that view is not shared by all. In fact, I don’t think it’s shared by most,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a Gang of Eight member who served in the House until January. “People just want to make sure we don’t return to this problem years from now.”

The conservative summit came as a bipartisan House immigration group lost one of its eight members but vowed to move on.

Conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) told reporters he was leaving the group because of concerns that the bill would not sufficiently protect taxpayers from footing the healthcare bill of immigrants in the country illegally.

He said he would be unable to sign on to legislation the group hopes to release in the coming weeks.

“I’m just going to move on and work with other members of the House Judiciary Committee to try to craft legislation that can actually pass the House,” Labrador said.

“We just couldn’t agree on the healthcare,” he continued.

The negotiators have been debating the healthcare language for weeks, and Labrador said that as the most recent addition to a group that had met in secret for four years, he did not want to hold up the completion of far-reaching legislation any longer.

Three Republicans remain in the group: Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), John Carter (Texas) and Sam Johnson (Texas). Labrador said he was the only member to quit on Wednesday, and both Carter and Diaz-Balart proclaimed the meeting a success without acknowledging Labrador’s departure.

“We have found a way forward,” Carter said.

Rubio spoke to the House conservatives alongside the chief critic of his bill, Sessions, and their dual exit from the meeting created an amusing tableau afterward.

“Don’t listen to him!” Rubio quipped as Sessions spoke to a group of reporters.

As Rubio addressed television cameras moments later, Sessions stood and listened off to the side, waiting quietly for his turn to speak.

The reception from conservatives appeared likely to provide fuel for the Republican push to bolster the border security provisions in the Senate bill.

“The House side is controlled by Republicans,” Flake noted. “If you want a bill to pass for the president to sign, it’s got to have Republican support, and right now the bill that we have in the Senate needs to be strengthened on the border security elements. That’s what we’re working on, and we want a bill that passes.”

Flake and Rubio downplayed the impact that a collapse of the bipartisan House group effort would have on the overall push, but Flake said the chances for a final bill would improve if the House passed legislation that is “more comprehensive.”

“I’m not in a position to tell the House what they can or should do,” Rubio said. “This issue can be handled in separate bills, but ultimately it must be handled comprehensively. It doesn’t have to be one bill.”

— Updated at 8:38 p.m.