A new narrative against taking up an immigration overhaul is forming in House conservative circles: Just look at the farm bill.
Some Republicans feel they were steamrolled by the farm bill conference report — a five-year, $1 trillion bill that will see House action on Wednesday — and it is now giving them pause about passing immigration bills in the House.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., raised the concern Tuesday in a closed-door conference meeting of the conservative Republican Study Committee. The House passed agriculture legislation that split what he called the “unholy alliance” of agriculture and nutrition policy, namely the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. When the bill came back from conference with the Senate, however, the two sections were fused again. Rather than cutting $40 billion from SNAP, it slashes $8 billion, leading some House members to think something similar could happen with an immigration overhaul, even if they pass the piecemeal bills leadership is considering.
“It was something Republicans, not just conservatives, could have hung their hat on. We could have accepted a lot of crap if we preserved that separation,” Mulvaney said after the meeting. “If the new normal is going to be that we pass really good House bills but get killed in conference, I think it does raise legitimate questions about whether or not we should go to conference” on immigration.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who sponsored early attempts to bifurcate the farm bill, said he will will vote "no" on the conference report for the same reason, and the product is giving him pause about moving ahead on immigration.
"It's difficult to trust the process going forward when you're going to get something back that you had no expectation of coming back," he said "The farm bill's done quite a bit of damage in terms of moving forward on other issues, just how it's all played out."
House GOP leaders are cautiously weighing a move later this year on several immigration bills that would strengthen security at the border, change the nation’s visa system and legalize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants. They will gauge support from the rank and file at a pivotal retreat of the Republican Conference that starts Wednesday.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said he will release a one-page document of House Republicans’ principles that could guide a rewrite of the immigration system, and the conference is expected to mull it over at the GOP retreat.
He has stated adamantly that he will not allow the House to go to conference with the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration bill, preferring to go to conference only on individual immigration-related bills one at a time, if need be.
Yet the latest argument against moving ahead at all could be a setback, especially when added to the list of apprehensions among Republicans. They are already wary of pushing the hot-button issue in an election year because it could present an opportunity for primary attacks against GOP incumbents.
Rep. James Lankford, a member of House Republican leadership who is running for an open Senate seat in Oklahoma, said the politics could be a problem for anybody seeking office this year.
“Once you get into the election year it becomes, somewhat, a circular firing squad as everybody tries to figure out where everyone is on an issue like immigration,” he said. He added that it is possible Republicans simply cannot agree on Boehner’s principles and the momentum for an overhaul would stall.
Furthermore, some Republicans are skeptical of President Barack Obama’s willingness to follow through with border enforcement measures, which would be the trade-off for the GOP agreeing to legalized status for many immigrants.
Rep. Steve Daines, who is running for an open Senate seat in Montana, raised the concern in the RSC meeting.
“The concern for many of us is the increasing lack of trust in this president enforcing the law,” he said after the meeting. “We have a president who is not enforcing existing law.”
Mulvaney and Stutzman are not the only members unhappy with the conference process, and in fact some Democrats have been griping that the $8 billion in cuts to the SNAP program are too much.
Rep Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a member of the farm bill conference committee, said he saw first-hand the extent to which rank-and-file members were excluded from the negotiating table. The conference committee held just one official meeting for members to offer opening statements and lawmakers didn't have leverage to fight for their priorities, he said.
"If Stutzman's frustrated with his leadership, try being in the minority," McGovern said. "I don't have much sympathy for him, in that the tea party wing seems to be wagging the Republican leadership here. ... But I understand — if you're going to have regular order, have regular order."
"I think, when you look at this conference process, if you weren't one of the big four, then ... at the end of the day, you really don't have much of a say," McGovern continued, referring to the chairmen and ranking members of the Agriculture committees. "So I can understand the people looking at this, saying, 'look, you had a meeting, where were the other public meetings? Where was the debate? Where was the amendment process? … We didn't even have a meeting to vote the bill out.' So if the new norm is going be, no conferences ... then we should say it."