Three Tripwires for Immigration in the House

Goodlatte has jurisdiction over moving immigration related legislation through the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Goodlatte has jurisdiction over moving immigration related legislation through the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 19, 2013 at 6:00am

With the Senate “gang of eight” touting its comprehensive immigration overhaul, get ready to watch the proposal’s opponents play whack-a-mole as they seek to derail legislation that appears to have a legitimate shot of going the distance.

The distance, in this case, means President Barack Obama’s signature, and whether the Senate plan can fulfill its potential rests in no small measure on the House. Can the bipartisan immigration working group of eight House members develop a politically viable comprehensive plan? And, will the chamber’s Republican majority embrace it, whether it’s moved in pieces, as is likely, or in one big package?

The answers to those crucial questions could depend on whether the House can surmount three major policy hurdles, which were foreshadowed Thursday by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va. In his statement reacting to the Senate bill, he commended the “gang of eight” for their work but was critical of key provisions of their legislation. House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul said addressing the citizenship issue for illegal immigrants looms as the chamber’s biggest challenge.

“It’s really how do you treat the 10-15 million, and do you put them on a path to citizenship, I think that’s going to be the big sticking point,” said the Texas Republican, whose committee has jurisdiction over the border security components of any immigration overhaul the House might consider. “The citizenship is going to be the hardest thing to rectify in my judgment.”

Three policy debates to watch in the House include:

  • The pathway to citizenship. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, once said that it would be easier to sell immigration reform to House Republicans if the bill included a pathway to “legalization,” rather than citizenship. But a pathway to citizenship, however arduous, is going to be required for Senate passage. The House “gang of eight,” of which Labrador is a member, has also since adopted this approach. But convincing a majority of House Republicans to agree could be a tough sell. When asked Thursday to name which part of the Senate immigration bill would be the toughest for House Republicans to swallow, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said it would be “the path” to citizenship, although he said “I think we can do it.” Flake, a gang member, only joined the Senate this year after serving 12 years in the House.
  • The cost. Among the concerns that have dogged House and Senate immigration negotiators for months was what an immigration overhaul might cost the federal treasury. House Republicans have been reluctant to add to the deficit and the debt even for previously nonpolitical spending like disaster relief, meaning that a high score from the Congressional Budget Office could force drafters of the Senate bill back to the drawing board. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said during Thursday’s news conference on the bill that he expects the CBO to score it as “deficit neutral.” Here’s what Goodlatte said about this subject in his statement: “I am also concerned about the bill’s cost to the American taxpayer since it doesn’t comply with ‘pay-as-you-go’ and contains some budget gimmicks to avoid a high score from CBO.” Goodlatte is set to be a major player in how immigration reform proceeds in the House.
  • Border Enforcement and the “triggers.” In urging conservatives to support the Senate bill, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has focused almost exclusively on explaining the border enforcement provisions and how the path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrant U.S. residents is tied to triggers meant to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving instant amnesty, and make it less likely that future congresses would cancel funding for border security measures, including the building of fences. Critics of this portion of the Senate bill have been vocal since the legislation was made available online Tuesday evening. “Leaving things the way they are; that’s the real amnesty,” Rubio countered during Thursday’s news conference.

In a brief interview Thursday, McCaul said he expects the Homeland Security Committee to markup border security legislation in May. And, he suggested that there might be a brewing consensus with the Senate bill over how to handle the border security components.

The congressman’s confidence appears to stem from the fact that the Senate’s “gang of eight” has adopted proposals to strengthen the border that are similar to what he is advocating in the House. “The gang of eight has adopted my bill as their border security piece,” McCaul said.

“I think [on] immigration reform, you’re going to see a different debate in the Senate than in the House,” he added. “I think the [House] bill is going to look different from the Senate; I think it’s going to be a lot tougher.”