Speaker John Boehner has been stunningly silent about his plans to move immigration reform through the House.
But privately, the Ohio Republican is beginning to sketch out a road map to try to pass some version of an overhaul in his chamber — a welcome sign for proponents of immigration reform.
If his goal is met, it’ll be a busy few weeks.
The speaker wants House committees — Judiciary has primary jurisdiction — to wrap up their work on a version of immigration legislation before the July 4 recess. And he would like immigration reform to see a House vote before Congress breaks in August.
His goal is to begin moving either bite-size immigration bills or the bipartisan House immigration group’s legislation through committees before the Senate passes its bill, which could happen by the end of this month. The Senate Gang of Eight plan is on the Senate floor this week and is expected to get a vote before the July 4 recess.
It’s an ambitious plan, considering House leadership has not yet settled on what bill it will advance.
Boehner’s thinking, and the fact that Republican leadership is willing to discuss the process for immigration reform, represents a significant shift and suggests a new urgency for Republican leadership. It is a moderately good sign for the prospects of immigration reform in the House. After months of coy talk from Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), any sign of planning for legislation is a positive development for reform proponents.
The leadership’s plan is to allow the bipartisan group to release its legislation and closely monitor how it is received by House Republicans. If it’s decried as too lenient, leadership could fall back on Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) small-bore proposals, which he has been slowly considering in committee. They so far include measures governing E-Verify, and changing the high-skilled and agricultural worker visa programs.
Republican leadership prefers to move immigration reform in pieces, rather than a large bill. But that’s pure procedural calculation, since a House-passed bill would have to be meshed with any Senate bill before it is sent to the White House.
Passing an immigration overhaul will be difficult in the House. The wide gap between the two parties has been on display recently, as the bipartisan immigration working group has experienced fits and starts in releasing its legislation. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), whose presence in the group was comforting for conservatives, recently dropped out. There is a pocket of conservatives that are opposed to a new process that would legalize the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country.
Another question will be how the House handles the Senate’s bill, should it pass the upper chamber. A senior GOP leadership aide said they would consider putting that measure into the committee process if it passed the Senate.
Of course, there are elements in leadership who think immigration reform will never pass the House. There is too much resistance to sweeping legislation, not to mention the charged issue of immigration reform splits the party in many directions.
Immigration reform is one piece of an increasingly busy summer on Capitol Hill. This week, the House will consider the National Defense Authorization Act. In the coming weeks, there will be a lengthy debate on the House floor on government spending. And there is sure to be healthy debate around intelligence reauthorization, after it was revealed that the National Security Agency is culling massive amounts of Internet data. Congress is also facing a stare down over student loan rates — the House and Senate have to come to an agreement with the president or rates will double.
Boehner’s timeline for immigration reform, and the fact that he is discussing it, also has skeptics.
Multiple Democratic aides familiar with the emerging legislation said Sunday that Boehner’s timetable is ambitious, but is feasible. A standoff over health care for undocumented immigrants was the final roadblock for House negotiators, but that was settled when Labrador dropped out of the negotiations over the dispute.
“Without any outstanding issues to resolve, our bill is nearly ready,” one Democratic aide familiar with the House discussions said Sunday.
That aide said the group — now down to seven members after Labrador’s exit — was still planning on releasing a single bill. Democrats and some Republicans have strongly advocated for a comprehensive approach because they say the components of immigration reform are too interconnected.
Meanwhile, the immigration bill moving through the Senate got a significant boost from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who announced on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and with a lengthy statement on her website that she was supporting the Senate Gang of Eight’s immigration bill.
Ayotte was long considered one of the likeliest Republican votes for the Gang of Eight, and the former state attorney general is a frequent ally of Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona — two members of the Senate group.
In her statement Sunday, Ayotte said she wants amendments that would tighten border-security measures, which will be crucial in luring more Republican votes. She also defended the 13-year pathway to citizenship that has become a flash point for some conservatives, calling its requirements “strict” and “tough but fair.”
“We need to stop the flow of illegal immigrants,” Ayotte said in her statement. “And we need to bring undocumented people out of the shadows to separate those seeking economic opportunity from those seeking to harm us [who must be deported].”
Ayotte joins the four Republican senators in the Gang of Eight — McCain, Graham, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona — in supporting the bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) backed the bill in committee but is insisting on more changes to provisions involving taxes and benefits before the legislation earns his support on the floor.
Other leaders are eager to move comprehensive immigration reform along. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in May that she wanted Congress to pass an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws by August.
And in his weekly address on Saturday, President Barack Obama said there is “no reason” preventing lawmakers from sending him a bill by the end of this summer.
“We know the opponents of reform are going to do everything they can to prevent that,” Obama said in his address. “And if they succeed, we will lose this chance to finally fix an immigration system that is badly broken.”