Three possible roads ahead for immigration reform in the House

The future of immigration reform rests in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set the July recess as the deadline for finishing a bill.

If the Senate fails to pass its bill, immigration reform is likely dead for the 113th Congress.

If it succeeds, heads will turn to the House, where legislation would have three possible roads forward.

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1) Passage of a bipartisan comprehensive bill.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) insists the House will not simply accept the Senate bill, leaving advocates for comprehensive reform banking on the work of a bipartisan House group.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) left the group last week, leaving it with seven members, who say they are on track to release legislation in the next week or two.

The legislation will be more conservative than the Senate bill, but with support from top Democrats and influential Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the hope is that the bill could capture a majority despite the expected opposition of immigration hard-liners on the left and right.

Republican supporters in both chambers say a single, broad bill from the House would be easier to reconcile with the Senate measure in a conference committee.

“Either way, we can conference with the House,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Gang of Eight. “But it’s better for us if they have a bipartisan bill that looks – I’m not saying more like the Senate bill, but is more comprehensive.”

But even if the bill gets introduced, significant hurdles loom.

The first is the House Judiciary Committee. Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has said he prefers a “step-by-step” approach to immigration legislation, and while he says he is eagerly awaiting the bipartisan proposal, he has made no commitment to giving it a mark-up and a vote.

His panel includes a number of staunch opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), its former chairman, and Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.). Moreover, Labrador was the only Republican negotiator who sits on the Judiciary Committee, and his departure from the talks robs the group of a key conservative backer who could have argued against amendments that would derail the bill.

Members of the bipartisan group held out hope that Labrador would not try to sink the bill in committee, even if he planned to vote against it.

“I don’t think he will do anything on the Judiciary [committee] that won’t help us,” Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), one of the seven members left, said Thursday. “I would be very surprised if he did.”

If the bill gets through Judiciary substantially intact, its prospects in the full House would improve dramatically. Because of the delay in introducing the proposal, a House vote would be unlikely before the August recess.

2) Bipartisan bill fails, piecemeal approach advances

If the bipartisan House bill falls apart – either before it is introduced or once it reaches the Judiciary Committee – House Republican leaders plan to push a series of individual immigration bills.

Goodlatte has already unveiled four in the committee and a fifth bolstering border security had already passed the Homeland Security Committee.

The goal of the piecemeal approach would be to allow members to examine issues independently and use the bills that pass as a legislative vehicle to negotiate a final immigration compromise with the Senate.

But Democrats and advocates of comprehensive immigration reform have deemed a piecemeal process unworkable because the components of the legislation – a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an E-verify system for employers, a guest-worker program and border security – are too interconnected to address separately.

The individual bills are expected be heavily Republican, and whether Democrats would help the GOP pass the bills to get to a conference committee is unclear.

“I don’t want to prejudge,” the party’s top vote-counter, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said this week when asked about the possibility.

3) House efforts fail: Senate bill or bust

Republicans have just a 16-seat margin in the House, and members of both parties are suspicious that the GOP could pass even small-bore immigration bills without broad bipartisan backing.

“I think the Republicans believe in the House that they can't pass any immigration bill without significant Democratic support,” Hoyer said.

That thinking is part of the reason that Republicans have stuck with negotiations for a comprehensive bill despite complaining that Democratic leaders have reopened agreements twice in recent weeks.

If the bipartisan bid collapses, Democrats could decide to pour their energies into an all-out campaign to pressure Boehner to call up the Senate bill for a vote, in the hope that enough Republicans will join them to get it through the House.

They will seek to use as precedents the votes on the fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy relief and a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, when a fractured GOP leadership agreed to pass bipartisan Senate legislation despite opposition from a majority of their conference.

Seeking to head off that move, Boehner, Goodlatte and the rest of the House Republican leadership issued its statement last month insisting that the House would not rubberstamp the Senate bill. Yet Boehner, who has said that immigration reform is a priority, would face enormous pressure to get legislation to the president’s desk. That pressure could come not just from Democrats but also from some top Republicans who have argued the party will face dire political consequences with an increasingly diverse electorate if it is blamed for the failure of immigration reform.

A more likely scenario is that if the House cannot pass its own measure, bipartisan or otherwise, Republicans would seek to add more conservative amendments to the Senate bill and send it back across the Capitol. That would allow Republicans to cast an affirmative vote for immigration reform and preempt criticism that they allowed the legislation to die in the House.