Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer has held private talks on immigration with Republican Reps. Paul Ryan and Trey Gowdy. President Barack Obama’s emissaries have spoken with House GOP leadership about an overhaul. Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have also chatted on the House floor about immigration.
It sometimes seems like House Republicans are in their own universe when it comes to rewriting the nation’s immigration laws. But since late last year, key House Republicans have been meeting with House and Senate Democrats as they try to reach a deal.
The talks haven’t led to any agreement on hugely controversial issues like a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. But they provide a window into the urgency — and high stakes — surrounding the immigration reform debate.
These are far from formal negotiations, and essentially amount to private information trading between Capitol power players.
But the sideline chats illustrate that House Republicans — long skittish about tackling the hot-button issue — aren’t exactly acting in a vacuum. Even if Senate Democrats don’t have a seat at the House Republican table, they have an idea where the chamber is heading. Cross-party and cross-chamber talks — no matter how limited the scope — show leading figures in both parties are serious about finding common ground. But it’s not clear whether these quiet discussions will lead to a breakthrough.
Schumer has been particularly busy. In 2013, the New York Democrat — who led immigration negotiations in the Senate — approached Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and the pair have met four times since then, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the talks. They spoke about other issues as well — ice fishing and Asian carp — but immigration reform was high on the docket.
There were no actual negotiations in the meetings, which have not been disclosed until now. Schumer prodded Ryan to chart a course forward.
“In 2013, Sen. Schumer reached out and Congressman Ryan agreed to talk with him,” Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert said. “They discussed a number of issues, but with respect to immigration reform, Congressman Ryan made clear to Sen. Schumer that we’re doing things differently in the House.”
Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, has also sat down with Schumer. A former prosecutor who chairs the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, Gowdy is a respected figure on the right and he has the ear of a broad swath of conservatives. Gowdy didn’t respond to an email from POLITICO about his discussions with Schumer.
“Congressman Gowdy has met with people of all political persuasions on immigration,” Gowdy spokeswoman Amanda Infield Duvall said in a statement. “He meets with people all the time on the issue.”
Schumer’s office declined to comment on the talks with Ryan and Gowdy. A source close to the issue said Schumer and Ryan “did not negotiate any specifics of House legislation at all in these meetings.”
Obama’s White House is also curious what’s going on with House Republicans and immigration, and administration officials are trying to quietly take their temperature.
When Katie Beirne Fallon came to Capitol Hill during her first rounds as the president’s new legislative affairs director, she discussed immigration with top aides and lawmakers in Republican leadership, including Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and his top staffer.
Similarly, before the House Republican leadership released its “principles” for immigration reform, Boehner and Pelosi huddled on the floor to go over the contours of the Republican document.
Some on Capitol Hill downplayed the latest House discussions.
“There are no across-the-aisle discussions on substance yet,” said one House Democratic aide who is closely involved in the issue.
But the one-page document released by House leadership at its retreat last week did illustrate a step in the right direction in the eyes of most Democrats. Still, even immigration reform’s biggest advocates have doubts a bill can pass in 2014.
“The biggest impediment to making progress on immigration that I’ve seen over the last year … is a complete lack of confidence that the law will be applied, that the enforcement measures will happen,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Monday. “And I think that’s only been exacerbated by the actions the president and this administration have taken over the last year.”
Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez has emerged as the lead Democrat in discussions with Republicans.
In a phone interview Monday, Gutierrez said he is in talks with “many” Republicans.
“I think it’s time for people to understand that while there have been a few of us that have continued the dialogue during the last few months, I think that the content and seriousness and even the change in Republican positioning on immigration calls for a renewed dialogue,” Gutierrez said.
Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, another Democrat who has been talking with key House Republicans in recent weeks, characterized the discussions as a way for both sides to gauge “how far [Democrats] can go and where do we go from there.”
The House Judiciary Committee — chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) — will take the lead on any immigration reform package, although a bill is unlikely to come to the floor before March at the earliest, according to senior aides.
It’s also unclear whether other committees — including Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means — would hold hearings on the bills, which would further slow the process.
It’s far from clear the House even will reach that point.
Boehner and Ryan have both advocated for some form of legislation this year. However, several top Republicans — including Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California — are much more cautious in their approach, concerned about a backlash inside the House Republican Conference.
Still, the quiet, back-channel discussions aren’t enough for impatient reform advocates, who on Monday stepped up pressure on lawmakers to pass legislation this year.
Activists from United We Dream, a broad network of young immigrants, fanned out all over Capitol Hill and visited roughly 50 House Democratic and Republican offices, distributing a list of their own principles for immigration reform. Topping their list: a “meaningful and inclusive path to citizenship for undocumented Americans.”
That was excluded in the leadership’s one-page list of principles and is one of the key sticking points for advocates — many of whom believe the Republican reform blueprint would risk creating a permanent underclass of U.S. residents who could never obtain citizenship.
Notably, the leadership’s principles do not bar undocumented immigrants from ultimately applying for citizenship through existing channels, although Democrats and immigration advocates say they need to see the details of any legislation before they could support such a plan.
“Look, I believe that we’re going to need more specificity,” Gutierrez said. “I have an interpretation of the principles, but you know, I’m not in charge of interpreting Republican signals. They are.”