House Republican leaders will begin to engage next week on the contentious issue of an immigration rewrite, launching a series of listening sessions to educate members.
The sessions will be led by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who serves as chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
While immigration is still likely to be overshadowed by budget issues and fiscal maneuvering this month, the move signals that party leaders are beginning to look at how they could move legislation aimed at addressing the issueSeveral sources said House GOP leaders are disinclined to attempt to move comprehensive legislation that would cover all aspects of immigration policy, preferring instead to tackle the overhaul in pieces, beginning with components that would immediately garner broad support.
Those elements could include easing immigration restrictions on highly skilled workers and providing a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents illegally as children and raised as Americans. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has expressed support for the latter.
Gowdy said that in contrast to past listening sessions, the meetings beginning next week are not meant to craft legislation but rather are for the purpose of “purely educating members on the current law.”
“Our position is the current system is broken. We have to carry the burden of persuasion with our colleagues in our own conference, and the way you do that is illustrate, prove to them, why it’s broken,” he said. “Vote your conscience, vote your district, but at least know what the current law is before you do.”
Small bipartisan groups of House members and Senators have been working separately to hash out compromise agreements, and in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and his leadership team have been periodically briefed on the contents and progress of those talks, according to GOP leadership aides.
But Republican leaders’ desire to move immigration bills piecemeal could conflict with the bipartisan group of House negotiators who are trying to tackle a comprehensive solution.
“We’ve seen under a Democratic majority how comprehensive bills are seen by the American public,” a House GOP leadership aide said. “It’s just not conducive to getting things right.”
The House working group is still developing legislation. But a broad outline of the proposal described to CQ Roll Call suggests that the secretive group may be close to resolving some differences on creating a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., one of the most controversial pieces of a broader immigration overhaul.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, a key Republican negotiator in the House working group, said the individual issues are so interwoven that it may be difficult to entirely separate them into individual bills.
“It’s an unnatural split, but you could do it, sure,” he said. “If, tactically, it helps to split a bill, if that satisfies certain needs of individuals or committees, I don’t have an issue with that. But we have to fix what’s broken.”
Leadership is also worried that comprehensive changes might be difficult to achieve, particularly once the price tag of any plan becomes an issue amid an era of calls for lower spending.
“I think the leadership is trying to figure out how best to do it,” one Republican insider said. “I don’t think the Republicans are closed off, but when you get into comprehensive, there are issues that are tough to deal with.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing the comprehensive approach, although members would no doubt ultimately support passage of bills on an individual basis if the GOP proceeded that way.
“As we’ve seen over the last several decades, short-term, piecemeal plans only prolong the issues we must address today,” a Democratic House aide said. “We’re focused on passing a long-term, comprehensive solution that fixes the immigration problem once and for all.”
A piecemeal approach could also put the House GOP at odds with members of the party in the Senate. Some Senate Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, are working on a comprehensive bill.
In fact, House Republican leaders are urging industries with an interest in an immigration rewrite to pressure senators to accept their approach and refrain from holding hostage any of the individual bills the chamber might produce because of their preference for comprehensive legislation.
The situation remains fluid, but House Republican leaders could be open to moving non-comprehensive immigration bills that address specific problems on a bipartisan basis. Leadership is unlikely to do so without the support of at least 100 Republicans, although the magic number could ultimately increase to around 150 or more.
The challenges include the political pressure that could materialize on the right and educating members to understand the urgency and benefits of the issue.
After redistricting, the majority of GOP House members don’t have much to fear politically in the 2014 midterm elections, at least at this point; facing a tough primary challenge is what they worry about the most.
Additionally, a majority represent districts with a Hispanic population of less than 10 percent, meaning their constituents express little concern about changes to immigration policy.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.