Paul Ryan endorses immigration bill after Labrador walks away

A bipartisan group negotiating a House immigration bill earned a key endorsement Thursday from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a day after one of its eight core members quit the effort because of a dispute over healthcare policy.

Ryan, the House GOP budget chief and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, told The Hill that he supported the legislation the House group hopes to introduce this month, despite the departure of conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho).

“I do support what they’re doing,” Ryan said. “I think they put out a good product. It’s good policy.”

Ryan has kept in close contact with the group since the November election, but as recently as Wednesday he had declined to endorse the substance of their emerging proposal, and it was not clear whether he would side with Labrador or the three remaining Republicans in the group: Reps. John Carter (Texas), Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.) and Sam Johnson (Texas).

Labrador, a former immigration attorney, informed his colleagues on Wednesday that he was leaving the group because he was not satisfied that taxpayers would not have to foot the bill for immigrants in the country illegally in their legislation.

Rather than agree to detailed language on healthcare, the group decided instead to essentially punt the issue and hew to the contours of the Senate Gang of Eight legislation, which makes clear that undocumented immigrants in a provisional legal status cannot receive federal benefits from the 2010 healthcare law.

“I think it’s going to be handled very much like the Senate is going to handle it,” Carter said. He said the healthcare issue would ultimately be decided in committee or on the House floor.

The group adopted a similar approach to address an agricultural guest-worker program, which it left out of the legislation. The lawmakers agreed to defer a fight until the legislation reaches the Judiciary Committee or the House floor, where the majority rules of the House suggest that Republicans will be able to advance their preferred policy. In each case, the final contours would then be decided in a House-Senate conference committee later this year.

“They just decided not to address it in this group,” Ryan said. “That just means it’s an outstanding issue to be decided later on.”

“Healthcare is an issue we haven’t reconciled yet,” he added, “but they didn’t want it to impede bringing out all the other good ideas that had been agreed to. So they are putting out good policies on lots of areas of immigration reform and we will agree to disagree on future flow and on healthcare, which just simply means we have more work to do.”

The three remaining GOP members of the core group said they bore no ill will toward Labrador, who was the most recent addition to negotiations that have taken place on and off for more than four years.

“Mr. Labrador decided that he wanted to go another way, and we accepted that situation,” Carter said.

“We’ve been at this four years,” he added. “He’s been at this six weeks. So there’s a lot more skin in the game than he had in there. He had some principles that he wanted to stand on, and I believe everybody ought to stand on their principles.”

Healthcare has bogged down the negotiations repeatedly in the last several weeks, and Diaz-Balart said Democratic leaders had twice demanded to re-open agreements that members of the group had struck.

“I am absolutely convinced that the Democrats in our group want a deal,” Diaz-Balart said. “I’m skeptical about whether Speaker Pelosi wants a deal or wants to torpedo it,” he added in a reference to the House minority leader and former Speaker.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on Thursday said she was “more optimistic and positive” about the prospects for immigration reform in the House, although she said she had yet to see the full details of the proposal.

Diaz-Balart and Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.) each praised Labrador’s contributions to the group.

“If we’re able to get a bipartisan bill, a bipartisan agreement in this group that is not only good public policy but that can pass, I think a great deal of that would be because of Raúl Labrador’s work in the group,” Diaz-Balart said. “I think Raúl Labrador has been instrumental in improving the work product that some of us have been working on forever.”

Yet there was no denying that Labrador’s exit will complicate the path forward for the bipartisan legislation, which is likely to compete with a series of individual immigration bills that Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are advancing.

Labrador is a vocal member of the Tea Party-infused House GOP class of 2010 and was the only Republican member in the group who sits on the Judiciary Committee. He played a similar role to that of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in trying to build conservative support for comprehensive immigration reform.

“Anytime you lose someone with the stature, political stature and intellectual understanding that Raúl Labrador has of immigration, it’s always going to make it more difficult,” Gutiérrez said.

Gutiérrez said Labrador was “clear, honest and transparent” about his positions throughout the process.

“So did it surprise me yesterday? It did not,” Gutierrez said. He added that he planned to invite him out to dinner to continue talking about immigration reform.

For the seven remaining members of the group, the next step is to finish drafting the bill and introduce it. Carter said four of its five sections have already been written and that his goal was to formally file the legislation next week. Other sources close to the group suggested that timeline was optimistic.

“If we’re not able to get a bipartisan bill within the next few weeks, then this option will probably not be a viable option,” Diaz-Balart said.

The bill is expected to come in between 450 and 500 pages, Carter said — well short of the length of the Senate immigration bill, which began at 844 pages and has gotten longer as it has gone through committee.

While Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has spoken positively of the House group’s efforts, he has made no commitments to their legislation, and on Thursday he again voiced skepticism about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in the House.

“I’ve never been a big fan of what I call comprehensive bills,” Boehner said in an appearance on "The Laura Ingraham Show." “They just get to be too big, there’s too much there, and frankly too much for members to digest. And so as we consider this, there’s a big discussion that’s been going on about doing this in chunks, if you will. And the other question that remains to be seen is, I don’t know how much traffic the House can bear on this issue.”

In that interview and in an earlier press conference, he emphasized the need for stronger border security that included “real triggers” that are stronger than the ones in the Senate bill, which provides for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“We all know that until we have real border security, and the ability to enforce our immigration laws within our country, that all of these additional steps really can't happen until that happens,” Boehner said at his press conference. “The American people will never — will never accept it, otherwise.”

—Bernie Becker and Molly K. Hooper contributed.