Boehner, Undeterred, Moves Forward on Immigration

Published on February 5th, 2014

By Jonathan Strong
February 4, 2014

Speaker John Boehner isn’t ready to let the dream die.

On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters immigration is just not in the cards in 2014. Last Thursday, rank-and-file House members sent a loud message at that President Obama is not the partner for legislation, spooking even top proponent Paul Ryan.

The editors from National Review, Weekly Standard, and numerous other top conservative pundits have urged the Ohio Republican to cut it out.

However, since the GOP retreat last week, Boehner has just kept marching along.

“I think leadership’s focus and my focus is to get [immigration] done as early as possible,” said Rep. Jeff Denham of California, who Boehner recently met with on the issue.

“It’s part of our conference agenda right now. It doesn’t go on the agenda without scheduling bills and scheduling time on the floor,” Denham added.

“Clearly, the draft principles we outlined, members seemed to be supportive of them,” Boehner said at a press conference Tuesday morning in response to a question from Breitbart News, adding, “no decisions have been made” on whether to move forward.

“I wouldn’t be surprised” if immigration legislation came to the House floor as early as this spring, one well-connected GOP member said.

Boehner’s office has released several documents touting the GOP principles since the retreat, some of which include almost cartoonish defenses of a proposal.

The “principles” would “eliminate the ability for any administration to arbitrarily decide which laws to enforce,” a Q&A posted on Boehner’s website says.

Meanwhile, top amnesty proponents outside Congress say they were relatively pleased with the principles and how they were received by the GOP.

“What has surprised me is how few people in House Republican caucus have stood up and opposed the policy,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice and one of the nation’s leading proponents for immigration reform. “Now maybe the concern about timing, and Obama’s trustworthiness are excuses, ways to get to ‘no’ without seeming to be in league with the hardliners. For us, watching it from our somewhat distant perspective, it’s the dog that didn’t bark,” he continued.

“This is the party that voted against the DREAM Act in Dec. 2010. Republicans backed Mitt Romney and his call for self-deportation in 2012,” Sharry added. “And now in early 2014 the House Republicans are saying citizenship for DREAMers and legal status with no special path for the rest. That’s a pretty significant shift, it seems to me.”

In the House, immigration is still going to be a tough slog, no matter what Boehner wants.

For example, the push back from conservatives has caused significant tremors of doubt within Boehner’s leadership team.

GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy, who on a personal level strongly supports moving forward on the issue, is feeling the heat back home, Republicans familiar with the matter say. The California Republican represents a highly conservative district with a lot of anti-amnesty sentiment. But it also has a significant percentage of Hispanics and pro-immigration bill activists have staged sit-ins in McCarthy’s district offices.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor has put major effort into a GOP version of the DREAM Act, which grants amnesty to the children of illegal immigrants. But he is also keeping an eye on his right flank in the event Boehner retires at the end of this Congress, leaving the seat open for Cantor to claim.

Responding to Denham’s claim that floor time has already been scheduled for immigration bills, Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper said, “There has been nothing scheduled as of now.”

Ryan, meanwhile, confirmed Tuesday that he had met secretly with top Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer on immigration but dismissed the importance of the session, which he said occurred last year. 

After raising serious doubts about whether immigration could come to the floor this year in a Sunday television interview, Ryan was more optimistic in remarks to reporters Tuesday.

“It wasn’t really bad,” Ryan said about the immigration showdown in Cambridge, MD. “The substance of our document people really appreciated. It’s just, like I said, the lawlessness of the White House makes us lose confidence that the President will enforce the laws,” Ryan said.

What took place in the meeting has emerged as a point of debate among Republicans.

GOP sources who participated in the meeting – both those who support moving on the issue and those who don’t – said in the hours afterwards that about 80 percent of the lawmakers who spoke were against bringing a bill forward this year.

“I would say that’s ridiculous,” Denham said Tuesday about their accounts.

The issue is complicated because some of the lawmakers who spoke in favor of the substance of the principles were not in favor of moving forward on legislation. In many cases, members only implied their stance on the underlying question rather than explicitly stating it. They also mostly only had one minute to speak each.

Still, conservative heavyweights like Reps. Tom Price and Jeb Hensarling came out strongly against moving forward, and the result of the meeting seemed to change Ryan’s tone in the days afterward.

One conservative lawmaker who said the meeting was deeply lopsided against bringing forward legislation in 2014 warned Boehner: “I think he is out for a walk with nobody tagging along.”

“At this point I don’t anticipate legislation will come to the floor,” said Rep. Tom Cotton, a freshman member running for Senate in Arkansas.

A top immigration proponent from the upper chamber, meanwhile, pitched a new argument for why Republicans can trust Obama to enforce any immigration bills they send him.

“80 percent of Americans, if not 90, want to secure the border. So, lets say that for some reason the Obama administration backed away from what Congress mandated – fellow Democrats would get killed,” said Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican up for reelection this fall. “He’s not running again, other people are. This scenario that he could just unilaterally back away from border enforcement and politically that not be damning to the Democratic party… the reason I know that we could move forward with securing the border is the Democratic party would get killed if they didn’t,” Graham said.

Senator Marco Rubio, another Gang of Eight member, was more pessimistic. Asked if the House should move forward in 2014, Rubio said, “That’s not my role to give them advice on. They’re working on what is a very difficult issue. The resistance they’re running into is a lack of confidence that this president and the federal government will enforce the security measures no matter what they’re written as.”

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