House Republicans huddled behind closed doors Wednesday in a long-awaited “special conference” to discuss tactics, air grievances and plot the way forward – or out of – the national debate over comprehensive immigration reform.
While the “lively” meeting didn’t yield any major breakthroughs among the deeply divided GOP conference, Republican leaders made clear in a statement afterward that any legislation that gives too much responsibility to the Obama administration is a non-starter in the House.
The American people "don't trust a Democratic-controlled Washington, and they're alarmed by the president's ongoing insistence on enacting a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill rather than pursuing a step-by-step, common-sense approach to actually fix the problem," leaders wrote after the meeting. "The president has also demonstrated he is willing to unilaterally delay or ignore significant portions of laws he himself has signed, raising concerns among Americans that this administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate."
Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas put it more bluntly.
"Trusting Barack Obama with border security is like trusting my daughter with Bill Clinton," he said. "We just don't trust him."
The gathering served to offer members a spectrum of options for addressing an issue that has long split the Republican Party and some say could permanently damage its standing with the rapidly growing bloc of Latino voters.
At the beginning of the meeting, House Speaker John Boehner reiterated that the House will not take up the “flawed” Senate-passed bill but urged some type of action. And Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the high-profile former vice presidential nominee who supports the reform effort, presented an economic argument for immigration legislation and noted the nation’s declining birthrate without the influx of new residents, sources in the room said.
"I think we got consensus that the system is broken and needs to be fixed and I feel pretty good about where we are," Ryan told reporters after the meeting.
But many Republicans from ruby red districts have little incentive to support a reform effort largely opposed by their conservative constituents. Some fear that any bill could result in "amnesty" if it is conferenced or blended
with the Senate-passed measure.
And even the leaders of the House GOP argue that the Senate bill’s reliance on federal agencies to enforce border security members won’t sit well with Americans skeptical of the Obama administration.
California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham was one of those in the meeting who advocated for a comprehensive reform but said the Senate bill gave too much discretion for border security to the Department of Homeland Security.
“It’s time for action,” he said, according to a participant in the meeting. “We need comprehensive immigration reform, but we need a guarantee in this. We need to make sure that we are able to secure the border by using our congressional oversight - not Janet Napolitano, but the power of this body.”
One type of immigration action could take the form of legislation to address those who were brought to the country illegally as children – or DREAMers – who have been among the most organized and sympathetic advocates for reform.
Rep. Darrell Issa told reporters outside the meeting that members discussed the possibility of offering a pathway to citizenship for the DREAMer group.
That’s an idea which seems to have measurable “consensus” from the GOP, said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, an influential conservative voice on the immigration issue who left the House’s group of bipartisan reform negotiators because of disagreements with their approach.
But it seems that any movement is unlikely to happen before the House adjourns for August recess.
Some members are working on individual pieces of border security and visa regulation legislation that could theoretically be bundled into a package that could pass the GOP-dominated lower chamber but would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate. Others, mindful of the potential political consequences of being blamed for the slow death of a bill important to the growing Latino voting bloc, hope that group of bipartisan negotiators can finalize a product that could find middle ground between both parties.
And some, like immigration opponent Rep. Steve King of Iowa, have vocally opposed the passage of any measure at all, saying the conference process in the Senate would insert a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants into any House-passed bill.
“I'm not going to support any kind of legalization because legalization is amnesty, is eventual citizenship, if not instantaneous citizenship," King told reporters Tuesday, "We don't have a moral obligation to solve that problem, the people who came here illegally came here to live in the shadows.
Several things were clear before the GOP gathered for the meeting Wednesday afternoon.
First, House leaders won’t bring up the Senate bill – which one GOP member said almost all members in the meeting agreed was “inherently flawed” – for an up-or-down vote.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp tweeted after the meeting that the House couldn't take up the Senate bill if it wanted to because legislation that raises revenues must originate in the House, according to the Constitution.
And second, the Democratic insistence on its long-held prioritization of a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants is problematic.
Gang of Eight leader and New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that must include a pathway to citizenship in any House legislation or Democrats will kill it.
That didn’t sit well with GOP rank-and-file.
"For him to him to say basically, 'If you can't do my way then we're not going anything at all,' I think would be very sad in the process," said Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma.
Labrador said earlier Wednesday on MSNBC that the ultimatum means the burden will lie on Democrats if the legislation stalls.
“If Chuck Schumer is not going to accept anything unless he gets 100 percent of what he wants, then he's the one who's killing immigration reform.”