By Russell Berman, Molly K. Hooper and Erik Wasson - 07/10/13 10:36 PM EDT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) urged their House Republican colleagues to pass immigration reform legislation in a closed-door meeting Wednesday, with the Speaker arguing his conference would be “in a much weaker position” if it failed to act.
A divided House Republican conference met for more than two hours in the basement of the Capitol to begin hashing out a response to the sweeping immigration bill the Senate passed last month.
Boehner “said we’d be in a much weaker position if we didn’t act,” according to Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “He clearly wants to act, thinks something needs to get done. Frankly, our principles are probably closer to where the American people are, but it’s incumbent upon us to act.”
The party leadership did not lay out a timetable for floor votes in the meeting, though members indicated leaders could develop a timeline in the coming weeks.
Members said it was likely that the House would wait until after the August congressional recess to act, although votes on individual border security and interior enforcement bills that have passed out of committee were possible before then.
Following the meeting, Ryan said he was optimistic the House would act.
“I think our members are ready to tackle this issue. It needs to be fixed,” he told reporters. “There is an emerging consensus that our immigration system is broken, that we need to fix it, and we need to do it in a very thorough way.
“I feel very good. I feel we are in very good position to do it the right way. We don't want to rush anything,” he said before diving into a crowded elevator.
But opponents of any legislation providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants said there was no consensus on immigration's most controversial issue.
“There is little consensus in there for doing anything other than border security," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) also said the conference was deeply divided on the question of legalization. “I think it is just about 50-50,” he said.
A recurring concern among Republicans in the meeting was that the Obama administration could not be trusted to enforce new immigration laws in the wake of its decision to delay the enforcement of a key element of the president’s own signature healthcare law. Boehner and other members of the leadership echoed that sentiment in a statement following the meeting, in which they declared the House would address immigration reform in a piecemeal approach rather than taking up any single bill.
“The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy. But they don’t trust a Democratic-controlled Washington, and they’re alarmed by the president’s ongoing insistence on enacting a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill rather than pursuing a step-by-step, common-sense approach to actually fix the problem.”
The statement continued: “The president has also demonstrated he is willing to unilaterally delay or ignore significant portions of laws he himself has signed, raising concerns among Americans that this administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate.”
The House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees have approved five pieces of immigration legislation, but none address the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. The chairmen of those panels, Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), gave presentations on those bills at the top of the meeting.
Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said additional pieces on immigration were needed, “and that’s what is being discussed and will probably be discussed” throughout the summer.
He said the House would deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants, but that the conference viewed them not as a uniform block, but in three distinct categories: “Those who should remain, those who should not remain, and those who would fall within guest workers or other programs.”
“We expect to have fully comprehensive immigration reform,” Issa said, but he added that it would be mindful of the mistakes that Republicans believe were made in the 1986 immigration overhaul, when illegal immigrants were granted amnesty, but the government failed to tighten the border enough to curb illegal immigration.
The meeting comes at a critical juncture for the push for immigration reform, the top domestic priority for President Obama’s second term. The Senate cleared a comprehensive plan last month on a bipartisan, 68-32 vote. But the measure earned support from fewer than half of Senate Republicans and drew opposition from the entire GOP leadership, limiting its momentum in the House.
In the lower chamber, Republicans have largely shrugged at the Senate bill and attempts by Democrats for them to take it up.
Gloom that immigration reform will not reach the president's desk has deepened among some Democrats. White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday acknowledged the fight was "an uphill climb."
One reason for the growing pessimism is Boehner's vow not to bring a bill to the floor that lacks the support of a majority of House Republicans. Democratic aides said they believed Boehner, though there have been some doubts within Boehner's own conference.
Boehner addressed those concerns during the closed-door meeting, as well as GOP worries about what might emerge from a House-Senate conference on immigration.
“The Speaker said that we're going to have a majority of the conference for anything that goes over [to the Senate] or comes back [from conference],” a lawmaker at the meeting said.
“People were asking, 'Well, can you guarantee me what's going to come back from conference won't be the Senate bill-light?’”
“[Boehner] said, 'I can't guarantee what's going to come back from conference because it hasn't happened yet, but I can guarantee that we're going to have something a majority of the conference accepts,’” a lawmaker in the room told The Hill.
During the meeting, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) read aloud a passage from “America the Beautiful” to emphasize the importance of the rule of law, he said. He told the conference he would oppose any path to citizenship, including procedural votes to bring such a bill to the floor.
While the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees have advanced a handful of individual immigration bills, Boehner has publicly and privately encouraged a bipartisan group of House lawmakers who have met in secret for more than four years to craft a comprehensive proposal. That group has stumbled repeatedly in recent months, and though its 500-page bill has been drafted, it has yet to be released.
Two members of that group, Reps. John Carter (R-Texas) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said they did not plan to make a formal presentation to the conference on Wednesday.
After the meeting, Diaz-Balart said he came away “very encouraged” and that he was more confident that the bipartisan bill would receive a favorable response from House Republicans. The group met on Tuesday night and made "a lot of progress" in combing through the legislative draft, he said.
Asked if it was likely the 500-page proposal would have to be broken up into pieces to be viable, Diaz-Balart replied, “To me that’s a strategic decision. It doesn’t concern me one way or the other.”
This story was posted at 5:14 p.m. and updated at 6:36 p.m.