Democrats Struggle for Consensus on Immigration Strategy

House Democrats are forging ahead with a plan to introduce an amended version of the Senate-passed immigration overhaul bill in the coming weeks despite worries the move could alienate Republicans.

Though the strategy is designed to unite the minority party in building pressure on House Republican leadership, it is actually causing some fissures in the Democratic Caucus.

"I will join 200 other Democrats on a proposal, but let us understand something: If it is a proposal to unify Democrats, it's a proposal to unify Democrats. It's not bipartisan," Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., said. "I want to continue to work with other Republicans ... because we know this won't be the ultimate bill."

"I don't want to comment on the proposal, but I do have the belief that if we are going to be successful in getting immigration reform in this House with the majority of Republicans, we're going to have to have some bipartisan support," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., adding that she was still undecided about whether she would sign on to the Democratic offering.

Others don't like the substance of the Senate bill, arguing that House Democrats should not embrace a proposal that falls short of more progressive values.

One skeptic was Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., who at a closed-door Wednesday evening Democratic Caucus meeting addressed concerns about the lack of diversity provisions in the Senate bill and the exclusion of black voices at the negotiating table, according to sources in the room.

"This is not an ideal Democratic proposal," a Democratic leadership aide conceded.

"This is a compromise, this is a 'come to the middle,'" added a Democratic staffer familiar with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The Democratic Caucus meeting, which sources described as "lively" and "healthy," came after last Friday's collapse of a bipartisan working group on which Gutierrez and Lofgren were both members.

Democrats are now anxious to "plant our flag," as some members described it, given House Republicans' inaction.

The time of waiting to win over Republican allies has ended, said Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.

"We've been waiting for eight months for a bipartisan bill, so at what point does that become a fantasy?" said Grijalva, who with a few other Democrats has introduced what he calls the progressive alternative immigration bill. "I think it's a fantasy at this point."

Republicans, chief among them Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., have insisted that they plan to begin moving on immigration overhaul bills in October, having already passed a number of stand-alone measures out of the committee.

Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, a more conservative Democrat, isn't ready to give up on Goodlatte. Last week, he brought Gutierrez along to a sit-down meeting with the committee chairman, whom Cuellar described as "willing to work with us on some things," including on Democratic amendments to some of the piecemeal bills "as long as we don't lose Republican support."

But Cuellar said while Goodlatte may be amenable to something reasonable, Democrats still need other GOP leaders on board, too.

Cuellar said he'd put his signature on the Democrats' immigration bill, but emphasized that "at the end of the day, Republicans control the House, and we gotta work with Republican leadership, gotta work with Goodlatte."

One major change that Democrats plan to make to the Senate bill is substituting the other chamber's controversial border security provision with the text of the border security bill that passed unanimously out of the House Homeland Security Committee — a rare bipartisan feat in a Congress struggling to gain consensus on anything.

Homeland Security Chairman and chief border security bill sponsor Michael McCaul, R-Texas, wasn't sure the inclusion of his legislation in the Democratic bill would help shore up any Republican support.

"With all due respect to Ms. Pelosi, she's not speaker of the House anymore, so you're not gonna see a comprehensive bill on our side," said McCaul of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "And I think we've always stressed regular order, we're gonna do these bills in regular order.

"We have committees for a reason," he continued. "It's probably well-intentioned, but it's not productive to the discussion."

Some members, like McCaul and Cuellar — have cited Pelosi as the primary driving force, and others say it's fellow California Democrat Xavier Becerra, the Democratic Caucus chairman and also a one-time member of the bipartisan immigration working group.

The moderate New Democrat Coalition boasts that it served as a catalyst for moving the process along, sending a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, in early August with a clear threat: introduce a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill by Sept. 30, or the coalition will.

"Since that letter, our Members have played an active role in building support for a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, increases our competitiveness, creates jobs, and lowers our deficit," said New Democrat Coalition Immigration Task Force Co-Chairman Jared Polis, D-Colo., in a statement. "The time for the House to act is now."

And the Congressional Hispanic Caucus also claims its support was critical to moving forward, with Chairman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, delivering lengthy remarks at Wednesday's meeting.

But in a brief interview with CQ Roll Call on Thursday afternoon, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., offered some reassurance to those members who may feel unraveled by recent developments.

"We are united in wanting to pass comprehensive immigration reform that leads to a path to citizenship. That is a unifying principle," said Hoyer, who was at the Wednesday meeting. "I think we are united behind the principles that the Hispanic Caucus put forward, including secure borders.

"I think there was great unity," he said. "Now it's just the issue of tactics and how best to put that forward. But I think we're pretty much in agreement on that. I think we'll be okay."