Hispanic Dems 'cautiously optimistic' after meeting with Boehner

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that immigration reform would need majority support from both Republicans and Democrats to pass in the House.

More than two dozen members of the Democratic group attended the private meeting with the Speaker, and leaders emerged saying they were “cautiously optimistic” that a broad immigration bill could win support in the GOP-led chamber.

Still, members said Boehner did not back off his remarks from Tuesday, when he said he would not bring to the House floor an immigration bill that lacked support from a majority of Republicans.

And while Hispanic Caucus members praised Boehner for agreeing to meet with them and made positive statements, they were not all smiles afterward.

“I can tell you that I left that meeting understanding that there needs to be a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats. And let me emphasize, a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats need to come together so that the will of the House of Representatives can be done,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a leading immigration reform advocate who is finalizing a bipartisan proposal.

The Democrats in the meeting were cognizant that Boehner is facing pressure from conservatives in his conference opposed to comprehensive immigration reform. "I don't want to hurt him by saying I was pleased with the meeting," Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) said with a laugh. "So let me just say we're optimistic that if we all do our part we're going to get something done."

“He made it very clear it would not be easy, and we know it won’t be easy,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic caucus and a member of the bipartisan group working on a bill.

Boehner’s comments on immigration Tuesday dashed hopes of some advocates that the House could take up a Senate-passed bill and send it to President Obama with mainly Democratic votes.

During the meeting, the Speaker would not make specific commitments to the Hispanic members about supporting either the bipartisan group’s proposal or backing a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. Members said the Speaker stressed, as he has in public, that immigration reform would go through committees in the standard order.

“He wants to let the committee process do its will and give the opportunity for the House to add its thoughts at the appropriate time,” Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) said. “He didn’t want to make any commitments that would in any way prejudge the work of the committee.”

Lawmakers said they brought up the projection from the Congressional Budget Office that the Senate immigration bill would reduce the deficit by $700 billion over the next two decades. Boehner said the CBO's finding was “positive,” Costa said, though the Speaker has criticized the border security measures in the legislation.

A Boehner spokesman declined to comment on the meeting.

A member of the Senate’s Gang of Eight, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), also attended the meeting with Boehner. Costa said there was “a general consensus” inside the room that a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate would boost the chances for a similar outcome in the House, albeit on separate legislation.

“The better the vote in the Senate, the more helpful it is in the House,” Costa said.

Architects of the Senate bill have pushed for 70 votes in the upper chamber, but the prospects for that kind of margin appear to have dimmed in recent days. Democratic and Republican senators are trying to agree on an amendment to boost border security provisions that could draw more GOP votes.

Gutierrez nonetheless emphasized his belief that members made headway in the Boehner meeting.

“I’ll simply repeat what the Speaker has said before and he emphasized before: He wants to fix our broken immigration system. I believe that’s what he wants to do,” he said.

The Boehner meeting came as the House Judiciary Committee met to consider Republican-backed legislation to create an agricultural guest-worker program, the second individual immigration bill the panel marked-up in as many days. On Tuesday, the committee approved an enforcement proposal on a party-line vote.

Democrats criticized the GOP’s guest-worker bill, saying it ignored an agreement struck between industry and labor groups that formed the basis for provisions in the comprehensive Senate immigration proposal.

In particular, Democrats said the House version lacked workplace protections and would force laborers to return to their country after their visas expired before applying for legal status in the U.S.

Gutierrez said the restrictions for laborers would force them into “indentured servitude” and make them “almost like a slave.”

The lengthy committee mark-up again underscored the growing partisan tensions surrounding immigration reform.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), another member of the bipartisan House group, said the committee was “taking a detour in a very unfortunate way.”

“I don’t know why we are doing this bill,” she said at the outset. “It will, in my judgment, never become law, and it never should.”

Lofgren noted that as part of the panel’s piecemeal approach to immigration, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) had promised additional proposals after the enforcement bill that passed on Tuesday.

“If this is the rest of the effort, we’ve got big trouble here,” Lofgren said.

Democrats in the bipartisan group say the legislation is fully written and they have all signed off on it, but the three remaining Republicans are still reviewing the legislative language.

“It’s kind of idling right now,” GOP Rep. Sam Johnson (Texas) said Wednesday.

Lawmakers now hope to introduce the long-delayed measure before the July 4 recess begins at the end of the next week. That may be the final opportunity to give the bill enough time to go through committee and get to the House floor before the August recess, if it gets that far. The full House Republican conference is meeting to discuss immigration on July 10.

Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said they left Boehner’s office “cautiously optimistic” that the House could pass an immigration bill by “August or September” and that a bill could be sent to the president by the end of the year.

— Mike Lillis contributed.

— Updated at 8:10 p.m.