House Democrats ready to give immigration bill another shot

House Democrats are laying the groundwork for another major immigration debate later this year, despite the risk that it could prove politically destructive for their party.

Moving broad legislation that would put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship seemed politically impossible until fairly recently and may still end up too hot for Congress to touch.
ADVERTISEMENT

Yet Obama sent a signal this month to Hispanic Democrats that he is still committed to the cause and that he plans to host a White House immigration summit before the end of May. That has bolstered the hopes of the legislation’s biggest advocates on Capitol Hill.

“In a sense we’ve been given the green light to have more robust discussions about this,” House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Energy: Trump moves forward with rule on California drilling | House panel advances bill that resumes participation in Paris climate fund | Perry pressed on 'environmental justice' | 2020 Dem proposes climate corps Trump administration moves forward with final rule to allow new California drilling Overnight Energy: Interior chief says climate response falls on Congress | Bernhardt insists officials will complete offshore drilling plans | Judge rules EPA must enforce Obama landfill pollution rules MORE (D-Calif.) said.

“The signal was clear to Congress that we can be instrumental in getting things going,” Becerra said of the March 18 meeting with Obama. “Now, from the practical side, the question is, How do we set the table to move this forward?”

Drafting the legislation may end up being the easiest part. Finding enough support when the economy has near-double-digit unemployment and violence across the U.S.-Mexico border dominates the airwaves is likely to make legalizing millions of illegal immigrants a hard sell.

“If you’d picked any issue that’s not on the front-burner right now, you’ve picked it,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who was among those Republicans who backed the failed proposal in the 110th Congress. “Nobody’s thinking about it because we’ve got all these emergencies on our hands. Let’s get these emergencies resolved and then we can turn to other things.”

Nonetheless, Becerra is optimistic. He said the most immediate task is to formulate a strategy for legislation ahead of Obama’s summit, and to begin discussions with Republicans who joined with Democrats in 2007 to support the legislation that crumbled under the weight of conservative backlash.

One of those key Republicans, Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget Jeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump WANTED: A Republican with courage MORE (Ariz.), said he would be on board, perhaps again teaming up with Rep. Luis GutierrezLuis Vicente GutierrezDHS to make migrants wait in Mexico while asylum claims processed Coffman loses GOP seat in Colorado Trump changes mean only wealthy immigrants may apply, says critic MORE (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s (CHC) immigration task force, to sponsor the House version of the comprehensive bill.

“I expect to be pushing for it,” Flake said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who did not bring the issue up last Congress, appears to be throwing more support behind the initiative this time. Pelosi recently became one of the first non-Hispanic members to attend a CHC forum on the human cost of workplace immigration raids, a practice she called “un-American” in its current implementation.

“What I said was separating parents from their children — ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids that separate parents from their children in the middle of the night — are un-American, and I stand by that,” the Speaker reiterated last week.

But Pelosi later added that she was hopeful that a comprehensive immigration bill could be considered by the House this year.

To supporters of comprehensive reform, moving a bill in 2009 is not just preferable, but a political necessity.

“That’s not what you do in an election year,” Flake said. “You’ve got to do it in an off-year.”

But many believe reviving the issue is a losing strategy for Democrats, and for Obama.

“You know, as a Republican, I would love to see them try and jam it through this year,” said Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyMicrosoft, other business leaders head to Capitol Hill in support of carbon tax House to vote on retirement bill next week House chairman issues subpoenas for Trump's tax returns MORE (R-Texas), who has worked on immigration bills with more enforcement-minded, conservative Democrats in the past. “Politically, I don’t think there’s a worse issue for them to jump on right now.”

Brady and many other Republicans said that, throughout large swaths of the country, the dynamics have not changed since the failed effort of 2007 — when conservative talk radio hosts helped kill the legislation by persuading their listeners to jam phone lines on Capitol Hill with calls objecting to the legislation.

Far more than the House, the Senate will determine whether the political wherewithal exists for passing — or even debating — a major immigration overhaul this year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidLobbying World Mitch McConnell is not invincible Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary MORE (D-Nev.) is supportive of the so-called comprehensive immigration reform bill, according to a Reid spokesman, and Reid has said he hopes to pass a bill before the end of the year.

“He believes it is important that we move quickly to pass reform to fix our broken immigration system that is tough on people who break the law and practical to implement,” said spokesman Jim Manley. “The bottom line is, he is ready to move a bill when a bill is ready for him to move.”

Between the health problems of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the retirement of Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and the tough reelection campaign facing Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) — just to name a few obstacles — questions remain about who could carry the immigration torch in the upper chamber, even if there were momentum for it.

At the same time, the growing number of House Democrats from conservative districts could complicate even that chamber’s efforts.

Rep. John BarrowJohn Jenkins BarrowRepublican wins Georgia secretary of state runoff to replace Kemp The most important runoff election is one you probably never heard of Our democracy can’t afford to cut legal aid services from the budget MORE (D-Ga.), a Blue Dog Democrat who has been the subject of fierce attacks from the Republican reelection arm over his party’s immigration platform, is skeptical. He’d prefer to see legislation with more enforcement measures.

“It all depends on what their proposal includes,” Barrow said. “As I’ve said in the past, what we should be doing is focusing on [employment verification] and securing the borders. And I think the rest will take care of itself.”