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In the wake of House passage of a sweeping Democratic health care overhaul, conservative Republicans were perplexed and angry Monday that their leaders decided not to force Democrats into a tough immigration vote that they believe could have brought down the bill.
House GOP leaders caught just about everybody by surprise Saturday when, toward the end of debate on the $1.3 trillion health care plan, they opted not to use a procedural motion to force a vote to bar illegal immigrants from buying insurance. Both parties were bracing for the vote and the potential fallout among Democrats divided on the issue.
But in the end, Republican leaders used the motion to recommit their most powerful tool in shaping debate to force a vote on a different issue, tort reform, which Democrats handily defeated. And in the wake of losing round one in the health care debate, some GOP Members were looking back and questioning why party leaders didnt act to defeat the health care bill when they had the chance.
If we had done that right, the bill would have been extremely unlikely [to pass], if wed brought up the illegal immigration motion to recommit, said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. That would have been the coup de grace. It would have killed the bill.
King estimated the bill would have gone down with about 235 votes if the illegal immigrant provision had been attached.
A GOP leadership aide explained the rationale of the tort reform motion: to force endangered Democrats to cast a vote in favor of trial lawyers over the well-being of seniors. Tort reform and Medicare cuts were issues that dominated statewide elections last week, the aide said, and will continue to do so in 2010 elections.
But King dismissed this logic.
We should be able to come up with something to put them in a box on a bill this big, he said. I wanted to put everything into killing the bill. I wasnt interested in anything that had later political calculations. Whenever you get something this bad, when you have a chance to kill it, you have to kill it.
Outside of leadership, it was hard to find Republican Members who agreed with the decision not to force a vote on immigration.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said he had been urging GOP leaders to target illegal immigrants with the motion since at least 20 Democrats had said they would oppose the bill if it had the provision, which meant Republicans had a real shot at bringing down the bill.
It sure would have seemed to made sense to include it, but Im sure whoever made that call had an incredibly brilliant reason not to, Gohmert said. I said, Thats a shame, that would have been good in there.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said she also expected the vote to be on immigration and was surprised when it wasnt. Asked whether she thought GOP leaders made a mistake by using the motion on tort reform, Bachmann said, Thats their decision. Theyre in leadership. At this point, I dont know what their thinking was.
One aide to a conservative Republican called the move a wasted opportunity because the GOP would have hugely benefitted from agitating Democratic divisions on immigration. If not that, the aide said, leadership should have at least used the motion for something message-friendly, such as forcing a vote to give all Americans the same health care plans as Members of Congress.
Whoever thought this was a good motion to recommit is a freaking moron, and we will be in the minority forever because of stuff like this, the aide said. They are fools, pure and simple. ... Our leadership dropped the ball.
Aides to other rank-and-file Republicans said they felt GOP leaders made a mistake by not linking immigration to the motion, a decision made about half an hour before the vote.
One GOP aide griped that Republican leaders used the bill for playing politics to gain seats for their own benefit rather than going all out to kill it.
But the GOP leadership aide said not to discount the effect of a vote against tort reform and for Medicare cuts.
Lets not pull punches here: This was a devastating vote for vulnerable Democrats, and there will be seats lost for Democrats and gained by Republicans because of this narrative, the aide said. Expect a campaign commercial in every district highlighting the Democrats abandonment of seniors.
Specifically, future ads will target freshman Democratic Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.), Glenn Nye (Va.), Steve Driehaus (Ohio) and Alan Grayson (Fla.), among others, the aide said.
Regardless of whether it was part of their calculus, GOP leaders provided shelter to Hispanic Republicans by avoiding the immigration vote. At least one Member, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), indicated during the Rules Committee debate on the bill that he would oppose any motion to limit the rights of illegal immigrants to buy their own insurance.
House Democratic leaders and Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were overjoyed that Republicans punted on an issue that stood to divide their caucus and potentially kill their top priority.
I was very pleased I didnt have to worry about that one tonight, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said. I dont know if it was a mistake or not because I dont know exactly why they did it.
Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said she also expected the motion to be on immigration and didnt know why Republicans went with tort reform. Somebody said they hated trial lawyers worse than they hated illegals, but I dont know if thats true, she said.
CHC Members spent the entire day preparing ourselves to defeat any motion to recommit that would bring this up, said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chairman of the CHC Immigration Task Force.
Gutierrez speculated that GOP leaders ultimately decided against the immigration vote because I think they figured out they might lose. You dont want to lose on something thats your bread and butter.
The fact that Republicans didnt try to use immigration to divide Democrats also demonstrates the weakness of this administrations argument in bringing it up, Gutierrez added, referring to President Barack Obamas support for adding the anti-immigrant provision in the Senate bill. Here was an anti-immigrant proposal that the Republicans thought so little of that they didnt use it. Its unusual, right?
Even if Republicans had brought the immigration issue to a vote, some Democratic leaders were confident they could have defeated it.
Our whipping was going very well, which was very gratifying and made for a sweeter victory, Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said.
Becerra described a gelling among the broader Democratic Caucus in favor of immigration reform. He said he hopes the GOPs decision not to offer the amendment could signal a chance for bipartisan immigration reform.
Im an optimist, Becerra said. I sincerely believe there is good will on both sides of the aisle to try to fix a broken immigration system and that we will find a well of support for pragmatic policies on immigration reform.