House Republicans emerged from their hotly anticipated closed-door meeting on immigration Wednesday united against the Senate-passed bill, but no closer to an agreement on their own policies to address the controversial issue.
However, House GOP leaders released a joint statement declaring that the chamber would move forward on immigration in a piecemeal fashion, rather than attempting the comprehensive approach taken by the Senate.
“[We] affirmed that rather than take up the flawed legislation rushed through the Senate, House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system,” GOP leaders said in a joint statement released on Wednesday evening.
But upon exiting the nearly two-hour meeting, lawmakers said they were no closer to setting a timetable for action, formulating a strategy or building consensus on how to deal with a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Lawmakers were also intensely wary of how the process might play out in the future, saying they do not trust the White House to enforce any border security measures nor a House-Senate conference.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, sought to allay at least one of those fears by promising that any immigration conference committee would be convened of House Republicans reflective of the will of the chamber.
Still, Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas spoke about concerns regarding how the chamber could conference on a Senate bill that is drastically different from anything that might come out of the House.
"Unless the Senate, specifically Chuck Schumer and the Democrats that drafted this bill, relent on their insistence for legalization first, enforcement later, then I can't see a way to reconcile any legislation that we might pass that would focus on enforcement," Cotton said.
In addition to doubts about working with the Senate on an immigration measure, Republicans said the White House's decision last week to delay enforcement of the employer mandate of the health care law had renewed their skepticism that the president would enforce border security and employer-verification provisions championed by Republicans.
“We are less likely to get an immigration bill because of the president’s proposal last week that essentially delayed a law passed by Congress,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio. “This is not the first time this has happened, but it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. How do you trust him on border security?
“It would be nice to know how the administration thinks they have the authority to do this,” he continued. “I think it would begin starting the process of us having a bit more faith and trust and them not just enforcing what they like and not enforcing what they don’t like.”
Still, some members urged their colleagues to look at the benefits of passing a bill or bills on immigration. At the conference meeting, House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., sought to appeal to his fellow Republicans' interest in the country's fiscal health by making the economic case for pursuing immigration legislation.
“I think the majority of Republicans want to get something done,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, adding that he thinks the majority of the conference stands behind perhaps not a pathway to citizenship but at least a pathway to legalization that would grant status to so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who opposes any immigration overhaul, described the party's split over a citizenship or legalization pathway as about “fifty-fifty.”
Though most Republicans said the Senate bill was dead on arrival in the House, they still haven't decided what they do want to do — with some members backing border security first, some arguing for no bill at all and others pushing to deal with the issue more comprehensively.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida likened the Republican Party to “an orchestra. ... It’s not a soloist. We have different points of view and all the folks are saying their peace and the way they look at it.”
But House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., was more blunt earlier in the day, quoting a Wall Street Journal editorial calling the Republican Conference “splintered and confused.”
As Hoyer and other Democrats have indicated, much of the House GOP's challenge will be passing a bill that sits well with their side of the aisle; Democrats argue that they will ultimately be relied upon to deliver the necessary votes — and they've said they won’t deliver without the promise of a pathway to citizenship.
Lawmakers are also still divided on whether it’s even necessary to pass immigration reform in the 113th Congress. Though the Senate passage creates some sense of urgency for the House to act, many Republicans don’t believe that action is crucial. As it is, the new school of thought is that no action on a House immigration measure would happen until after the August recess.
“Folks are saying, ‘What are we doing?’ There are 10 issues, and immigration’s number 10 on the list,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who opposes a comprehensive immigration bill. “We’re losing our focus on jobs, the economy, Obamacare, health care, regulations. ... I’m not hearing much back home from my constituents that we gotta do this.”
Others say the House will pass something because it has to.
“The White House would love us to fail so they can take back the House on the issue, so politically it would be advantageous for us” to pass immigration, said Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas. “We need to do something.”
Matt Fuller, Niels Lesniewski and Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.