Policy

Goodlatte's Piecemeal Approach on Immigration Has an Upside

An aide said Goodlatte is trying to involve more members in the process of overhauling the immigration system, not trying to kill the ultimate bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte sent a clear signal last week that the bipartisan working group does not have sole authority to set the terms of debate on immigration.

But the consensus Beltway reaction to the Virginia Republican’s decision to drop two immigration bills in committee — that Goodlatte purposely undermined the working group to diminish the prospects of a bipartisan deal — is wrong. In fact, Goodlatte’s move could diffuse the political tension on an issue that is very sensitive for House Republicans by involving more members in the process and dispelling suspicion that an immigration rewrite was pre-cooked on orders from GOP leadership.

“He wants to make sure that all members have the voices of their constituents heard. Look back at 2007 and why [immigration overhaul efforts] failed: It was very much top down,” a House Judiciary Committee aide told me during a brief telephone interview.

The two bills dropped by Goodlatte include one he authored to create a “market-driven” guest-worker program that’s “farmer friendly” and one by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, an immigration hardliner, to beef up the E-Verify system intended to ensure that employers don’t hire illegal workers. The Judiciary aide confirmed that the bills have been scheduled for hearings only, not a markup, and that they have not been “fast-tracked.”

Goodlatte is likely to schedule hearings for additional proposals after the House returns from this week’s recess, including a Senate proposal developed by the “gang of eight.”

Sources close to the House immigration working group, which is comprised of four Democrats and four Republicans, said that its members weren’t put off by Goodlatte’s decision to begin holding hearings on other immigration legislation. But the House group does believe that Goodlatte was trying to send a message that they should wrap up their negotiations because he’d like to get the committee process moving. The group still expects to unveil its proposal in May.

“What it means to the group is that they need to get their act together and finish really soon,” said a Republican congressional aide familiar with the House working group’s negotiations. Part of the group’s calculation is how it rolls out its proposal. Members have planned an extensive effort to educate their colleagues prior to publicizing their bill to reporters and the public.

Goodlatte and other top House Republicans have suggested that, unlike the Senate, immigration overhaul legislation in their chamber would fare better in pieces, and is therefore more likely to proceed in such fashion. But a second Republican source familiar with the House “gang of eight” negotiations said the separate pieces of legislation would likely be merged into one vehicle once an immigration overhaul package is ready for floor consideration.

Some House Republicans have speculated that holding separate but coordinated votes on various aspects of immigration policy would boost its prospects. Even if some portions of the package fail, they could always be put back in during a conference committee with the Democratic-controlled Senate. In any event, the House Judiciary aide had this to say about Goodlatte’s intentions: “He’s not trying to slow walk [an immigration rewrite] to kill it. He wants to get it right so that we don’t have the same debate 10 years down road.”