Wednesday’s all-House-Republicans-on-deck meeting on immigration has lost its potential to generate the summer's biggest congressional news.
Caucus leadership has already concluded there’s no chance a majority of the majority is back from the July Fourth recess ready to tackle the issue in anything close to a comprehensive or speedy manner.
That news was buried in the third sentence of the 15th dense paragraph of a memo that Majority Leader Eric Cantor sent out to a nearly empty Capitol on July 5. Although creating a citizenship pathway for the 11 million people who are in the United States illegally would be the most consequential change in domestic policy of the decade, and spurning the idea would be political hemlock for the GOP, the idea barely merited a passing afterthought in his discussion of the House’s July legislative agenda.
Instead, the bulk of the next four weeks will be devoted to passing a trio of “drill, baby, drill” deregulatory Republican energy measures that have no chance of even a serious hearing in the Democratic Senate. That will be joined by five spending bills that are more likely to complicate than to smooth this fall’s inevitable budget crisis.
There may also be time to take another run at passing the farm bill — probably, although Cantor didn’t say so, by splitting its food stamp and agricultural provisions into separate measures.
And after all of that symbolic legislating? “The House may begin consideration of the border security measures that have been passed by the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees and begin reviewing other immigration proposals,” the majority leader offered.
The translation goes beyond what Speaker John A. Boehner said before the recess — that the legislation that passed with 68 votes in the Senate would never be put to a vote in the House because it would win only a fraction of the 118 GOP votes he’s demanding for any consequential measure. (That’s half the Republican membership plus one, an obviously unattainable goal given that only one-third of Republican senators voted “yes” last month.)
Cantor’s use of the “may” verb tense telegraphs that his team feels no compulsion to do anything at all before the summer recess, when the brightest “golden moment” for big-deal legislative achievement at the start of every presidency comes to its unofficial end.
And his statement explicitly says that no measure to move illegal immigrants toward the civic and economic mainstream would be coming to the floor this month, even if the bipartisan negotiating team of seven House members unveils its comprehensive citizenship and secure borders proposal.
Those fiats sap almost all the urgency from Wednesday's Republican Conference meeting. It had been hailed as a venue for the rank and file to explain what they wanted on immigration — in light of their own political imperatives and after taking the temperature of their constituents during the break — and for the beleaguered majority whip team to do some preliminary reconnaissance on caucus sentiment.
Instead, the meeting will inform only the strategic thinking of the leadership team. If the ultimate goal of Boehner and Cantor is to persuade most of their members to bolster the Republican Party’s future by voting in favor of some sort of path to citizenship — presumably just one time, to clear a negotiated agreement with the Senate for the president’s signature — then they are presumably spending much of their backroom energies working to engineer that outcome as painlessly as possible.
Cantor’s memo is a sign that GOP leaders have decided they need not pass anything this month. They have presumably concluded their long-term goal might be achieved more easily if they wait until fall before advancing their opening bid, and then press the Senate to bend the House’s way so that a final compromise can get locked up by the end of the year.
And they have also presumably concluded the public pressure for them to keep the process moving can be held at bay, at least for the summer. That calculation is buttressed by the fact that only 1 in 6 House Republicans, or 39 out of 234, represent a district with 20 percent or more Latino population — underscoring how the problems the national Republican Party has in appealing to Latinos is not shared by its congressional wing.
House committees have already written five bills tackling aspects of an immigration overhaul that Republicans insist on and that the business community can live with. They would require the Homeland Security Department to come up with a plan for gaining “operational control” of the Mexican border, give states and cities more authority to enforce federal immigration laws, mandate use of the E-Verify electronic workplace verification system, create a new visa program for farm workers and give more visas to American-educated doctors and engineers.
Bundling those into a package and putting that onto the floor in the first half of September looks like where the next step in the process is headed.
In the meantime, biding for time, with the series of messaging bills on energy and positioning bills on the budget, looks to be what the GOP leadership thinks best.