Immigration looms large over GOP summit

When it comes to finding a way forward on immigration, the Republican Party is all over the map.

And it’s very much in doubt — even among GOP members — whether this week’s combined House and Senate retreat in Pennsylvania will enable the party to coalesce around a single approach.

As it stands, some Republicans think a comprehensive reform bill is the only way to silence Democrats who’ve used the immigration issue to bludgeon the GOP in past presidential elections.


Others only want to talk about border security. And House conservatives are pushing leadership further to the right on how to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), causing an intraparty feud over how far to go to fight President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

Several Republicans told The Hill they’re doubtful they’ll be united behind a common strategy when they emerge from their two-day retreat at the Hershey Lodge.

“I’m sure there’s some people who just want to stay away from a difficult issue,” said freshman Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoBiden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit Here are the 11 GOP senators who helped advance the debt extension MORE (R-W.Va.), who just moved over from the House. “But I think we ought to work on it.” 

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an ally of Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Debt ceiling games endanger US fiscal credibility — again MORE (R-Ohio), said he’s not holding his breath waiting for his party to roll out a new immigration game plan. When the Speaker presented his principles for an immigration overhaul at last year’s retreat, conservative outside groups and talk-radio hosts quickly assailed the GOP blueprint and “blew everything up.”

“I personally would like to see us come out with a road map for immigration reform, whether it’s comprehensive or step-by-step. I hope we can come out with some sort of starting point on that,” Kinzinger told The Hill in an interview.  

“I’d like to see it, but we know that this is a divisive issue. It will take leadership having to frankly lead on this issue.”

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulVaccine 'resisters' are a real problem Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Journalist Dave Levinthal discusses 'uptick' in congressional stock trade violations MORE (R-Ky.) is skipping the GOP powwow entirely, making the calculation that visits to New Hampshire, Arizona and Nevada would better serve him ahead of an anticipated run for the White House.

And Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), an immigration attorney, said he has “no expectations” for the retreat since it’s the first such event in more than a decade that Republicans from the House and Senate will be attending together.

One senior Senate GOP aide said immigration reform is the biggest unresolved topic heading into the gathering. 

“I doubt we’re going to have unity on immigration reform coming out of the retreat,” the aide said, “but my guess is the biggest news made there will be on what we’re going to do moving forward.”

Freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said it’s too much to expect 300 Republicans from both sides of the Capitol to rally behind a single approach. Instead, he wants a simple promise from GOP leaders that they will take on the issue in the 114th Congress. 

“That is my goal — for Republican leadership to agree to be part of the solution for immigration and stop these temporary, short-term Band-Aids, like what we’re going to do with the DHS funding,” Curbelo, the son of Cuban exiles, said in an interview.

Immigration won’t be the only issue Republicans will wrestle with at the Hershey summit, set for Thursday and Friday at a conference center near the famed chocolate company’s theme park. Other sessions will focus on jobs and the economy, including the Keystone XL pipeline, and the best way for the GOP to dismantle ObamaCare.

But immigration has been front and center for Republicans in the opening days of the new Congress. And if there’s one thing that’s unified Republicans, it’s their opposition to Obama’s executive actions.

“I think the president’s made it much more difficult through his actions” to pass an immigration overhaul package, said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenators ask Biden administration to fund program that helps people pay heating bills McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Republicans are today's Dixiecrats MORE (R-Maine), one of 14 Republicans who voted for the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013. “By taking pre-emptive action, he’s managed to unify the entire caucus on a process issue because it has constitutional implications.”

Before they leave for their retreat, House lawmakers will pass legislation that would keep money flowing to DHS; funding runs out on Feb. 27. 

In a nod to immigration hard-liners, the House is also expected to attach two amendments to the funding bill: One would block funds from being used to carry out Obama’s efforts to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to live and work in the U.S. The second would effectively halt Obama’s program deferring deportations for immigrants illegally brought to the country as children.

However, it doesn’t appear the House plan has support from the 60 senators needed to overcome a filibuster from Democrats and moderate Republicans. That fact alone has the potential to cause a rift in the GOP just as House and Senate lawmakers decamp for Hershey.

Even some House Republicans say focusing too much on Obama’s executive actions ignores the bigger challenge of how to fix the nation’s complex immigration system.

“We’ve got to deal with immigration, immigration as a whole, reforming our system across the nation,” Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) told reporters. “Just picking on the children who came here through no fault of their own I think is the wrong way to start.”

Yet other Republicans said they hoped their party could find some common ground. 

“Finding mutual agreement across a very wide spectrum of ideological belief is critical, and I believe we can reach that,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).

“It’s incredibly important we have a unified House and a unified Senate — otherwise it gets doomed to failure,” added conservative Rep. Matt SalmonMatthew (Matt) James SalmonTrump endorses Kari Lake to succeed 'RINO' Doug Ducey as Arizona governor The Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? Former Rep. Matt Salmon launches gubernatorial bid in Arizona MORE (R-Ariz.), who was part of the group advising Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on how to fight Obama’s unilateral actions. “One of the biggest frustrations that I’ve had as to why we’re not successful is that we don’t coordinate enough in advance to find out our commonality.”

Other Republicans said they would push their leadership to take up a series of immigration bills in the coming weeks, starting with a measure on border security penned by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), House Homeland Security chairman. The McCaul bill will be discussed at the upcoming retreat.

“It’s got to be a conservative plan that we can all unite behind,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). “It’s got to be border-centered for me. Border first.”

Curbelo said he wants to see legislation to modernize the visa process, while Kinzinger is pushing for a bill to boost the number of green cards and visas for highly skilled workers.

GOP Rep. Charles BoustanyCharles William BoustanyFormer lawmakers call on leadership to focus on unity Partial disengagement based on democratic characteristics: A new era of US-China economic relations Lobbying world MORE Jr. is calling for a temporary worker program that’s critical to key industries in his coastal Louisiana district. They include rice and sugar cane, as well as seafood processing.

“I have business interests that depend on the guest-worker program, because they can’t fill these jobs with local labor,” Boustany said.