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Immigration Overhaul Emissaries Wait in House

House working group membership being kept under wraps, a sign of the issue’s political sensitivity

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Raúl R. Labrador is seen as a natural to be involved with an immigration overhaul.

With an immigration overhaul on next year’s agenda, House Republicans must decide which members of their conference will play a visible role in the negotiations — an important consideration for a party that is struggling to attract Latino voters.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said after the Nov. 6 elections that he is confident that Congress and President Barack Obama “can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.” But House Republicans have not yet indicated which of their members will help lead the high-profile effort to find compromise with Democrats; by contrast, the membership of a bipartisan Senate working group on immigration is known.

“At this point in time, the conference is really looking for someone to hold the flag, someone who has a combination of experience and a passion to fix the immigration system,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates on behalf of immigrants.

Incoming Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., will by default be a central figure in any immigration proposals that advance in the House, if only because the legislation will run through his panel. Goodlatte, a former immigration attorney, is no stranger to the issue. But he is better known on Capitol Hill for his expertise in agriculture and Internet policy, and he emphasized job creation — not immigration — when he was selected as chairman last week.

Goodlatte has yet to name a new chairman of Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee, a vacancy created by the retirement of Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif. Goodlatte’s choice to head the subcommittee is seen by immigration advocates as an important indicator of the House GOP’s intentions on the issue.

One contender is GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who is one of the chamber’s most conservative members on immigration and who ran, without success, for the subcommittee chairmanship two years ago. But Democratic aides say the selection of King would be a sign that House Republicans are not serious about finding common ground with Democrats, and few other names have surfaced.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan working group in the House has quietly started discussions on an immigration overhaul that both parties can support. A similar bipartisan group is holding discussions in the Senate; it includes Republicans Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah and incoming Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The membership roster of the House group, however, is being guarded closely by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, underscoring the political sensitivity — particularly among Republicans — surrounding an immigration overhaul in that chamber.

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