By Juan Williams - 08/19/13 09:00 AM EDT
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, recently told a Wisconsin town-hall meeting that the House has plans to vote on immigration reform in October.
If Ryan is willing to publicly talk in such terms, then he is opening the door to Republicans allowing their leadership to pass the bill with votes from Democrats.
Recent remarks by other GOP leadership figures give reason for increased optimism on immigration reform as well.
On “Fox News Sunday,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) promised a vote on separate bills containing components of immigration reform as it passed the Senate.
Cantor committed neither to a vote on a comprehensive package nor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.
Still, the promises of floor votes from Ryan and Cantor amounts to a breakthrough at a moment when House Republicans fear primary challenges from hardliners who might accuse them of going soft and giving “amnesty” to illegal immigrants.
Most House Republicans are still risk-averse on immigration reform, content to do nothing and let it die without any vote and without any conference with the Senate that could require further compromise.
But the new posture on immigration reform by high profile Republicans could end the paralysis.
The House needs 218 votes to pass any immigration bill. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a key negotiator on immigration reform, estimates that 195 of 201 Democrats currently support the bill that passed the Senate in June. That means about 23 GOP votes are needed.
Immigration reform groups are targeting about 50 Republicans during the August recess, holding rallies and trying to drive large turnout for town-hall meetings. The idea is to show those House Republicans that there is support within their districts for immigration reform from business groups, farmers, labor unions and evangelical groups.
Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, has taken a lead role in galvanizing support for immigration reform inside Congressional districts during the recess.
“I am optimistic [there will be a vote on immigration reform in the House],” she told me in a recent interview for Fox News Latino. “None of us ever believed it was going to be easy. This isn’t about it being easy…[but] we now have strong bipartisan support. It is visible all over the country.”
As the third week of recess begins, there is a glimmer of hope as a few more rank-and-file Republicans are voicing support for an immigration deal. And there is pressure building from the outside.
Last week, for example, the Bipartisan Policy Center's immigration task-force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, released recommendations closely mirroring the Senate-passed immigration bill. That could give more cover to House Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform.
Already, GOP Reps. Joe Heck (Nev.), Jeff Denham (Calif.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.) are saying they could support a pathway to citizenship. So, too, are Reps. Peter King (N.Y.), Aaron Shock (Ill.) and Daniel Webster (Fla.).
House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) has not embraced the path to citizenship yet, but he has moved to the point of allowing illegal immigrants to become eligible for some legal status.
Pro-immigration reform groups, including labor unions, have targeted McCarthy during the August recess in his California district, which is home to a growing Latino population.
Another Republican feeling pressure from pro-immigration groups during the recess, Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.), appeared at a mostly Hispanic meeting in his district and spoke about the need for immigration reform that is “compassionate in keeping families together.”
Immigration advocates are also highlighting the lack of a Tea Party backlash during the recess against prominent Republican senators who took the risk of supporting immigration reform, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).
There are several options when it comes to the mechanics of passing immigration reform in the House.
One drastic political move would be for Democrats and a few Republicans to force a vote on a comprehensive immigration bill using a discharge petition. The GOP leadership would have to promise its renegades not to punish them for defying their caucus to support the petition.
That strategy would protect both the leadership and most Republicans — who could continue to oppose legalization or citizenship — from charges of going soft on immigration reform even as it passed into law.
Ryan proposed something similar but far less bold at one town-hall meeting.
He said the Republican leadership might just bring the various parts of the Senate’s immigration bill to the floor and allow votes to see if there is a “majority of the majority” support inside the GOP caucus.
“We don’t know if we have a majority until we vote on it,” Ryan said.
He added: “I’ve spoken to [Speaker] John Boehner…we all agree it is better to legislate in stages…I believe what I’ve just laid out is something that a consensus of Republicans and Democrats can agree to.”
With House Democrats ready to support the components of the Senate bill, the Republican leadership, by lowering the bar to the vote, would be allowing the bill to become law. Yet at the same time, Boehner and his lieutenants would be insulating themselves from some of the danger of a backlash from hard-right opponents of immigration reform.
Ryan later told an interviewer: “A lot of members know we need immigration for our economy, especially the agricultural ones…most Republicans agree that legal immigration, properly structured, is good for the economy and good for the country.”