House Speaker John Boehner’s hiring of a former top aide to Sen. John McCain to advise him on immigration issues has renewed hopes that House Republican leaders are planning to move forward on reform legislation next year.
Boehner’s hiring of Rebecca Tallent as assistant to the speaker for policy handling immigration issues comes amid intensifying pro-reform activism on Capitol Hill as time runs out on the 2013 legislative calendar.
Tallent, most recently director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., worked for McCain, R-Ariz., for years, including a stint as his chief of staff. Before that, she was an aide to then-Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who, like McCain, was a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform.
“I’ll be focusing on trying to get this sticky immigration situation worked out,” Tallent wrote in an e-mail announcing her final day at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Reform supporters and opponents alike say the move by Boehner, R-Ohio, is the clearest signal yet House GOP leaders are sincere when they say they want to act on a series of immigration-reform bills.
“This is a sign that Speaker Boehner is very serious about doing something on immigration,” said John J. “Jack” Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California and an expert on how Congress works. “The big question is: What does that something consist of?”
McCain was a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that wrote the comprehensive bill that passed the Senate in June. In her role at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Tallent voiced support for McCain’s approach to reform, but also reflected a sophisticated understanding of the internal House GOP dynamics at play.
Boehner has said the House won’t take up the Senate’s sweeping package, which balanced a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11million undocumented immigrants who have settled in the country with a massive investment in border security and new visa programs for future foreign workers.
Boehner and other top House Republicans have expressed a preference to break up the immigration issue and address the various aspects, such as potential legalization for the young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers,” one at a time rather than in one far-reaching piece of legislation.
The speaker has said individual bills must win support of a majority of House Republicans. That poses a challenge because a faction of House Republicans view attempts to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants as “amnesty” for lawbreakers.
Keeping conversation alive
Activists attempting to build support for immigration reform with their “Fast for Families” continued to pick up steam Tuesday.
Eight new fasters, including Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, relieved the group of four activists who for 22 days had been fasting on the National Mall to call attention to the moral implications of inaction on immigration reform. The original group, which included Cristian Avila of Arizona, previously attracted visits from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“This fast has literally kept the conversation about immigration reform alive,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners and one of the new fasters. “Across the street is one kind of power (in the U.S. Capitol). In this tent is another.”
Another group of 40 activists from Arizona also was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, praying outside Boehner’s home, holding a vigil outside his office and singing Christmas carols.
“The speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms — the kind of reforms the American people understand and support,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Tuesday in a statement e-mailed toThe Arizona Republic. “Becky Tallent, a well-known expert in this field of public policy, is a great addition to our team and that effort.”
‘A slap in the face’
Boehner’s hiring of Tallent, an Arizona native, drew praise from reform supporters but also put “amnesty” opponents on alert because of her long association with McCain and her record of supporting immigration reform. Many reform foes had been quietly confident that House action on immigration was unlikely in 2014, a year expected to be dominated by congressional midterm-election politics.
As a former McCain and Kolbe staff member, Tallent brings “strong Republican credentials” but also can work with all sides on the complex immigration issue, said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who served as national Hispanic co-chair for McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and who knows Tallent well.
“Becky has an exemplary reputation: She is smart, she is hardworking, she is effective, and she is a serious person who seeks pragmatic solutions,” Navarro said. “It tells me that Boehner genuinely wants to get something done. … It’s a very smart move by Boehner.”
One reform critic called the Tallent hire “a slap in the face” to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and an indication that Boehner is planning “an end run around the Judiciary Committee,” which has oversight over immigration issues.
“It confirms what we always knew: that the Republican leadership in the House is pro-amnesty, but they just don’t know how to get it past their members,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the anti-reform Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. “I assume the point is for her to try to cook up a way to get a majority of the Republican caucus to vote for something.”
But Pitney said that it is common for a House speaker to devote a staff member to a big policy topic, and Steel confirmed that Tallent is filling an existing position.
“On the vast majority of issues, speakers defer to the committee system, but they do take certain issues to heart and put a leadership stamp on some positions,” Pitney said.
If Tallent’s role is to help the House GOP find consensus on immigration issues, it is appropriate that she work out of the speaker’s office, he added.
“If you are concerned about building a majority within the entire conference, you don’t do that simply within a committee,” Pitney said. “That’s really the role of leadership. This is a sign that Boehner is hoping he can get something to the floor.”
A window for action
Other observers called Boehner’s decision to add Tallent to his staff, even at this late date, a positive sign for immigration reform’s prospects. Some believe there remains a window for action in early to mid-2014, before Capitol Hill is paralyzed by election-year partisanship.
“It’s a signal that despite the fact that Speaker Boehner really hasn’t been able to move his caucus forward all year, that he’s not giving up,” said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Latino/Chicano studies at the University of California-Irvine.
Pro-reform activists are not giving up, either, at trying to persuade Boehner and other House Republicans to act.
Maria Castro, a 20-year-old Phoenix resident whose mother is in the United States without authorization, was part of a group of five Arizonans who recited the rosary on the sidewalk outside Boehner’s home on Tuesday morning. She said Boehner came out and waved. Later, the activists caught up to Boehner but were unable to engage him in a serious conversation, she said.
“We told him, ‘We’ve been praying for you,’” Castro said. “And he said, ‘Oh, I know.’ That was the only response we got out of him.”
Contributing: Gannett Washington Bureau reporter Erin Kelly