HARRISONBURG, Va. – The frustration is evident in Rep. Luis Gutiérrez’s voice.
Gutiérrez and other immigration advocates viewed the November reelection of President Obama as a clear referendum for comprehensive reform, and the issue quickly became Obama’s top domestic priority.
The veteran Democrat is known as one of the Capitol’s eternal optimists, but as he chats with reporters before a rally in a Republican district, he is struggling to chart a path to final passage for comprehensive immigration reform, the issue he has championed for two decades in the House.
“I was hopeful we would be in a better place today,” Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) conceded.
Nowhere is Gutiérrez’s frustration more apparent than on the topic of the bipartisan House group that has worked for years to craft an immigration overhaul. The legislation is drafted, but the three Republican negotiators have yet to sign off and whether the bill ever sees the light of day remains to be seen.
“I will be very clear and succinct: I have already signed off,” Gutiérrez said in an interview. “It is now time for my Republican colleagues to step forward and to announce a date. If they give me a date, I’ll be there, and we’ll present legislation and present it to the public.
“I’m done. I’m ready. They need to step forward.”
After working in secret for nearly four years, the eight House negotiators went public with their effort earlier this year and, over the past six months, have repeatedly declared themselves to be close to a deal.
But in June, the group lost an important conservative member, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who quit in a dispute over healthcare language. As the Judiciary Committee moved ahead with a series of partisan bills, the bipartisan group lost steam, and the remaining seven members decided not to introduce their proposal before Congress departed for the August recess.
In a significant obstacle for the group, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has declared that any immigration measure must earn the support of a majority of the Republican conference: a caucus long dominated by conservatives resistant to offering a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants.
The GOP leadership has not brought any immigration bills to the floor, and with fiscal fights expected to dominate an abbreviated September legislative session, the full House may not consider the issue until October or later.
There’s a simple reason the Republicans in the group have not signed off on the bipartisan bill, said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), a GOP negotiator: The bill as written would not win the support of a majority of House Republicans.
“There’s a lot of good conversations taking place, but right now we don’t have the votes to move forward,” Diaz-Balart said in a phone interview. “But we’ll get there.”
With Republicans wary of large pieces of legislation, the 500-page proposal will now almost certainly have to be broken up into pieces if it is ever introduced. And Republicans have demanded stronger language to ensure that the Obama administration could not choose to ignore or delay enforcement of any of its provisions.
“The Republicans do not trust that the president will endorse the law,” Diaz-Balart said.
Without Labrador, a former immigration attorney, in the group, it has become more difficult for the remaining conservatives, Reps. John Carter (R-Texas) and Sam Johnson (R-Texas), to endorse and defend the proposal, according to people familiar with the group. Neither Carter nor Johnson responded to a request for comment Wednesday.
It is also unclear whether the four Democrats in the group, Gutiérrez and Reps. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and John Yarmuth (Ky.), would agree to any more changes.
The bill is already more conservative than the Senate bill. It contains a longer and more arduous path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, as well as harder border security and enforcement triggers.
During the interview, Gutiérrez said a significant obstacle for the House group was a lack of backing from party leadership. While Boehner has spoken positively of their efforts, and Gutiérrez and others have kept in close contact with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), no senior Republicans have thrown their full weight behind the proposal.
“I think it is very, very important to understand, that unlike the Senate, the group has not received any support,” Gutiérrez said. “In the Senate, whether it was [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.) or Majority Leader [Harry] Reid (D-Nev.), the judiciary chairman, or any part of the leadership, it was clear that the group of eight was going to have the support, and that there would be hearings, and there’s was going to be the main bill.
“I have to tell you,” he said, “in the House, there’s been anything but this kind of support.”
Gutiérrez vowed to press on with or without the group’s proposal.
“If the group of 7 doesn’t have a solution, then we’ll build a new group,” he said. “We’ll build a new group until we have a group of people that allows us to have 218 votes one day. But we refuse to take no as an answer.”