House GOP leaders head into a crucial immigration meeting with their rank and file Wednesday without a clear strategy for passing a bill and a host of competing factions to corral.
Though the afternoon conference is being heralded as a step toward building consensus within the rank and file, members acknowledge it’s unlikely to produce a unified path forward.
“It’s all over the place,” Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, said in describing the multitude of conflicting interests being pushed by his Republican colleagues. “I don’t know if that one-hour conference is going to be enough.”
Speaker John A. Boehner's challenge is to get the majority of his members to support either one comprehensive immigration bill or, more likely, a series of stand-alone measures that, when grouped together, would be comparable to the massive overhaul the Senate passed last month.
The Ohio Republican has promised not to bring legislation to the floor that would violate the “Hastert rule,” but pursuing a strategy that keeps that promise will be a delicate balancing act.
Most Republicans say they won’t support a broad immigration overhaul without assurances that the president will sign legislation that strengthens border security. Boehner said Monday that he would insist on rigorous border security measures before any efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants.
Democrats signaled at a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, however, that they would not vote for any stand-alone bill without voting first on a pathway to citizenship, according to sources in the room.
But Democrats are, for now, the least of Boehner's worries. Some GOP lawmakers have said they won’t support any immigration bill at all because they fear a pathway to citizenship — or “amnesty” as they call it — will ultimately be lumped into the final package that emerges out of a House-Senate conference committee.
If a significant number of Republicans withhold their votes because of that possibility, Boehner would need Democrats to help pass a bill. That may be a bridge too far, however, for Boehner, given that he would likely have to abandon the Hastert rule and, possibly, his border security vow to get their votes.
So in passing an immigration overhaul, it could become a game of who blinks first in the House.
Labrador, who with a group of “a few” other House Republicans is working on a new immigration rewrite to propose to leadership, said he thinks Democrats will cave.
“It has to be a Republican bill that the Democrats would accept,” said Labrador, who added that Democrats were being unreasonable. “If it doesn’t … we might as well just go home right now if we’re going to do whatever the Democrats want to do.”
But Democrats say they are confident that Boehner will be the one to renege on his pledge, and the minority's strategy of demanding a pathway to citizenship hinges on whether they are doing the right math, according to senior Democratic aides present during Tuesday’s meeting.
“The operating theory is that we’re not going to make this easy for them,” one Democratic aide said about Republicans, “and if they want our votes, they are going to have to give us something for it. … With enough pressure, we can get them to violate the Hastert rule.”
Though it may not be clear who has sway over the House Republican Conference heading into the Wednesday meeting, it is clear who doesn’t: Senate Republicans.
The perception on the House side of the Dome is that the 14 Senate Republicans who voted for the immigration rewrite are to the left of the conference, and none really have a lot of clout across the Capitol.
Of those 14 members, three have recent House experience, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois. Yet House GOP sources don't expect any of those three lawmakers to be able to sell their former colleagues on the bill.
Of course, Senate Republicans have tried to reach out to influential House conservatives. Several House and Senate Republicans met Monday night. The guest list included former vice presidential nominee and current House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan. The Wisconsin Republican also met Tuesday with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., to discuss immigration, according to the senator. Hoeven, along with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., wrote the "border surge" amendment that was instrumental to securing GOP votes for — and therefore passage of — the Senate bill.
Though Boehner has insisted on tough border security measures first, Corker said he believes such demands reveal that House Republicans don't understand what the Senate bill does.
“I think once they realize what this bill says, the border security issue goes away. And I think what the speaker has brought up is the sequencing," Corker said. "If the House passes any kind of border bill, or security bill, or any other element, it still gives an opportunity for a conference to occur. And I think if a conference occurs, we still have a chance at getting a more comprehensive piece of legislation, and I hope we will."