Republican leaders in the U.S. House made clear there is one thing they intend to do with the comprehensive immigration reform passed with great pageantry by the Senate Thursday: Ignore it.
"The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes," Republican House Speaker John Boehner reiterated just hours before the Senate approved its bill by a 68-32 margin. That insistence has left backers of the delicately negotiated comprehensive solution eyeing a political needle to thread in order to advance the legislation.
Senate negotiators sought to run up the margin of the vote, hoping that overwhelmingly majority support would put political pressure on House leaders to move on the measure. So far there is no sign that strategy has worked, leaving efforts to fix an immigration system all sides admit is broken in legislative limbo.
Although some Republicans fret that the powerful Latino voting bloc will forever distrust the party if it allows reform efforts to languish and die, many members of the GOP-controlled House have little individual incentive to support a bill disliked by their constituents.
And the breakdown in the lower chamber – 234 Republicans to 201 Democrats – simply isn’t favorable to the plight of immigration reform advocates.
“The Senate is producing something where basically it's unified Democrats and a section of Republicans,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “That formula isn't going to work over here on this issue. It's just politically not a feasible thing.”
Insiders are split on whether or not an immigration overhaul will ever make it into law, but no one believes that the process will be easy.
“There is a narrow and difficult path to an immigration bill getting to the president’s desk and being signed,” said a top GOP aide, who said that such a scenario is still “possible.”
Boehner has insisted – both privately and publicly – that he won’t bring legislation to the floor that does not have the support of a majority of House Republicans.
On Thursday, he went even further, extending that pledge to any piece of legislation that results from a merger of House-and-Senate-passed bills.
“We're going to do our own bill through regular order, and it'll be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people,” Boehner told reporters Thursday, just hours before the Senate approved its legislation. “And for any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House is going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members.”
With limited support among House Republicans for the Senate bill’s foundational “path to citizenship,” that leaves few options for comprehensive legislation to pass both houses of Congress and make it to President Barack Obama’s desk.
'Delay, delay, delay'
Boehner could work to pass a handful of individual border security measures now being edited in the House Judiciary Committee, but those would have to be blended with the Senate’s comprehensive bill, which includes legalization for undocumented immigrants. Or, if a bipartisan House group completes work on its long-expected but still incomplete compromise legislation, leaders could take their conference’s temperature on those provisions.
But foes of the reform effort staunchly maintain that the impasse is unbreakable.
“We’re going to be in a situation again where, just, nothing happens,” predicted Rosemary Jenks, a lobbyist for limited immigration group NumbersUSA, which opposes the Senate bill.
Jenks disputes the idea that Boehner will allow passage of a disliked bill in order to appease national Republicans who fear a backlash from Latino voters.
“All the Senate Republican leadership is going to oppose this bill,” she said, pointing to opposition from his Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell and other top GOP senators. “So that really gives Boehner all the out that he needs.”
Even if Boehner brings GOP-palatable, piecemeal legislation to the floor, the effort could still wither on the vine if it faces opposition from Republicans suspicious of “amnesty” and Democrats set against any bill that doesn’t contain a pathway to citizenship.
The leaders of the minority caucuses in the House – made up entirely of Democrats – told reporters Thursday that they would “not accept” the piecemeal approach Republicans are committed to doing, saying the strategy is “simply to delay, delay, delay, and to kill” the bill.
“The proposals that are being made in the Judiciary Committee, under the fine and able leadership of Chairman Goodlatte, are not a response to the Nov. 6 election,” Rep Luis Guitierrez , D-Ill., told reporters today, “They are proposals, quite honestly, that we've seen before. They're not solutions that the American people are demanding.”
But Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested today that a piece-by-piece approach may be the means to getting to a collaborative “conference” with the Senate bill, a milestone that many believe would mean that a bill could actually make it to the president’s desk.
“If the speaker wants to have a House bill, I fully share that sentiment,” Pelosi said, “But they have the majority, they run the floor, so let's just move forward with something, but to do so in a manner that is results-oriented and not obstruction.”
The political structure of the House is also problematic for supporters of immigration reform.
With only about one-in-10 House districts being hotly contested between the two parties – and only a handful of those having a significant Latino population – most Republican members of the House don’t fear an immediate backlash at the ballot box.
Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, said there will be political consequences if the House fails to pass a bill but that not all GOP members will feel them.
“I think the Republican Party needs to deal with the issue of immigration in a thoughtful, responsible manner and I think it's important for the party to do that,” he said. “I certainly think if the House doesn't deal with it there may be a political price to pay, but I don't think that price will be paid uniformly across the board.”
Still, supporters of the Senate bill say that pronouncements that the legislation is dead on arrival in the House should not be taken at face value.
‘There’s a ‘vote-no-pray-yes camp,’” said Marshall Fitz, the director of immigration policy for the Democratically-aligned Center for American Progress. “There are Republicans who want to get this done but who can’t see going back to their home district and defending it.”
Fitz says he’s hopeful that Republican leaders – in collaboration with Democrats in the House – will acknowledge that unspoken support and find a way to pass a bill with a bipartisan coalition.
“There are multiple ways to move forward,” he said. “And there’s a will to move forward.”