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The Three Camps in the House GOP on Immigration

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Steve King “Hell No” Caucus Small and Embattled; A Group in the Middle that is Likely to “Vote No, but Pray Yes”; and an Unknown Number of Reformers

Depending on which article you read about the House Republican immigration meeting yesterday, you come away with a different take on where they are heading.

For us, the most important takeaway from the meeting was this: The Speaker of the House declared that they House has to act.  As reported by the New York Times:

Speaker John A. Boehner warned about the steep price of inaction, telling House Republicans that they would be in a weaker political position against a bipartisan Senate coalition and President Obama if they did nothing to answer the immigration measure passed by the Senate last month.

And at a press conference today Boehner responded to a question about whether there’s a chance that a bill with a path to legal status or a path to citizenship could pass muster with House Republicans by saying:

Well, we’re gonna find out…the twitter from the conversation yesterday was that the members do believe – the vast majority of our members do believe – we have to wrestle with this problem.

As Greg Sargent at the Washington Post astutely observed:

There are two operational schools of thought among those reading the immigration tea leaves.  One is that the House GOP leadership is merely stretching out this process in order to let reform slowly wither and die.  The other is that GOP leaders are trying to buy themselves as much maneuvering room as possible to bring their caucus along as far as possible in the direction of real reform (which is favored by GOP elites and other key stakeholders aligned with the party) without blowing things up.  Boehner’s presser today would seem to suggest that Door Number 2 is the right one.

Jed Lewison of the Daily Kos writes:

Notably, Boehner kept the door open to passing a bill that includes a path to citizenship. Asked explicitly whether blocking any legislation that doesn’t have the support of a majority of House Republicans would block a path to citizenship or legal status, Boehner said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’  When asked a follow-up question about whether he believes House Republicans would be willing to support a path to citizenship or legal status, Boehner said, ‘Well, we’re going to find out,’ suggesting that he plans to put his conference to the test.

What does all this ad up to?  It means that yesterday should be seen as Day One of a whole new debate on immigration reform that is about to unfold in the House.  The key question is this: how many House Republicans can get to yes on some version of legalization with some sort of path to citizenship and will that be enough to move forward and into a conference with the Senate?

To answer this question, it’s important to understand the three groups that are beginning to come into relief in the opening stage of the House Republican debate:

  • The Steve King “Hell No, Keep the Status Quo” Caucus:  One reason to remain optimistic about yesterday’s meeting is that Rep. Steve King (R-IA) came out of it unhappy.  He lamented the fact that his Republican colleagues were divided “50/50” on the question of legalization for undocumented immigrants, and he admitted that his speech about the rule of law being at risk was met with less enthusiasm than in the past: “It was not a standing ovation” he conceded.  After his poorly attended organizing meeting Monday night, Wednesday was not a good day for the King crowd.  His group attracts a lot of media attention but doesn’t command many votes.
  • Pro-Reform Republicans: At yesterday’s meeting, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) made the fiscal and economic case for reform, and was joined by Reps. Jeff Denham (R-CA), Raul Labrador (R-IL), Darrell Issa (R-CA) and others in saying positive things.  Even Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) from a ruby red district in the South said, according to the Wall Street Journal:  “’I support a pathway to citizenship because I don’t believe we should have a second class of citizens,’ said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.). Everyone living in the United States should feel invested in the country, he said. Denying that would create ‘an underclass and I don’t believe that’s what America is all about.’”  How big is this group?  We don’t know yet.  This is the group that pro-reform leaders are going to educate and whip in the coming weeks to see if it grows to the point where Boehner is confident he can move forward.
  • The Undecideds & the “Vote No, Pray Yes” Contingent: While the anti-immigrant wing of the House Republican caucus is loud, it is not large.  A bigger block of House Republicans fit squarely into the undecided and/or conflicted camp.  These are Members who are critical to the effort to move reform with a path to legal status and citizenship in the House.  Some will get to yes and some will get to no.  But even if they end up voting no many will need to give a wink and a nod to Speaker Boehner to pursue reform.  They would do so because they know it is the right policy for the country and the right political move for the Party, even if they can’t sell it in their own district.  This group flies currently flies under the radar screen, but it will make a big difference in Leadership’s political calculus.

We remain optimistic.  The fight for the soul of the GOP lies ahead.  And powerful voices are urging House members to do the right thing.  Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin writes: “The echo chamber is loud in the GOP, but lawmakers who pay heed to it rather than to actual voters run the risk of being out of sync with the people who actually matter and the core of their party’s base. GOP governors, who are the most effective Republicans and most adept at reading their voters, get this. That is why so many of them support immigration reform. (Another reason might be that immigration reform can add substantially to state coffers without raising taxes on anyone.) The question is whether House Republicans are as keenly in touch with actual voters.”