Boehner Faces Competing Immigration Paths

Posted April 21, 2013 at 9:30pm

Two immigration trains have left the station in the House, but no one knows which one Speaker John A. Boehner wants to eventually arrive on the floor.

A secretive bipartisan working group — akin to the Senate-side “gang of eight” — is trying to finalize its “comprehensive” proposal. But House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte is flexing his muscles by launching a piecemeal-type legislative push, causing tension between the two factions and questions about who will take the lead.

Lawmakers and aides involved in the secret bipartisan group privately warn that Goodlatte could potentially blow up the push for an immigration bill in the House.

But immigration is under the Judiciary Committee’s purview, and moving the bill through the panel is part of the “regular order” Republicans have been clamoring for.

“We also have a ‘Hastert rule.’ We also have regular order. And we also have a lot of people in this Congress who are not part of that little group, and they all need to have input in this process, so we’re making sure that that happens,” Goodlatte told CQ Roll Call in a brief interview.

The Virginia Republican added that “we’re encouraging the House group to reach agreement, and we will benefit from their product.” But, he reiterated, “no decision’s been made about how we pull it all together.”

Leadership aides said that’s true, that Boehner doesn’t have a thumb on either side of the scale and that a wide array of options are still on the table. Besides, it’s still unclear whether the recently unveiled bipartisan Senate group’s bill can pass in that chamber: If it does, it would put new pressure on the House.

Even while they say there is no explicit commitment from Boehner, members and aides who are part of or close to the bipartisan group seem to have confidence, even cockiness, that Boehner secretly has their back.

Part of that is based on who Boehner is as a legislator: He’s a dealmaker at heart.

But it’s also because of repeated public comments in which Boehner gave the group great deference.

The existence of the group was revealed in a video of the Ohio Republican answering questions at the Ripon Society, a conservative think tank.

In his remarks then, he said the bipartisan group was “the right group of members” to make progress on the issue of immigration and suggested some level of ownership or authorization of the effort.

“My theory was, if these folks could work this out, it’d be a big step in the right direction,” Boehner said.

The group briefed him on the principles of their agreement March 15, and on March 19, Boehner called the substance of their proposal “a pretty responsible solution.”

Boehner said April 18 that the bipartisan group “continues to make significant progress” but that Goodlatte is “working diligently with his committee” in addition to that.

“Overall, I’m very happy. The process is continuing,” Boehner added.

The question of who leads on immigration in the House cuts across both substance and process, since Goodlatte is going with a piecemeal approach and the bipartisan group wants to do a comprehensive plan even if, according to House group member Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, the comprehensive plan could be cut up into separate bills that went to the House floor on the same week or day.

Whatever the bipartisan bill proposes, it will still have Goodlatte’s imprint to advance through his committee, according to key lawmakers in public and private.

“It will go through the committee process. It will go through Judiciary. It’s still going to have to go through the process of the committees. It can’t be one small group that gets a chance to dictate to everyone else,” said Rep. James Lankford, chairman of the GOP Policy Committee.

Lankford and Goodlatte referred to the bipartisan groups in the House and Senate as performing a role in vetting what issues are likely to prove difficult for Republicans and Democrats to agree on.

“I’m not a part of their negotiations. My work with them is based on encouraging them to produce something so that we can see what kind of bipartisan support there is on immigration,” Goodlatte said.

The bipartisan group has briefed Goodlatte and Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that deals with immigration, sources said, but it does not appear the two parties are working closely together.

The Judiciary panel includes a number of very conservative members who might vigorously object to anything approaching “amnesty” for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States.

Those include Reps. Steve King of Iowa, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Jim Jordan of Ohio, J. Randy Forbes of Virginia and the committee’s former chairman, Lamar Smith of Texas.

For example, Smith said in an interview that he was deeply and irrevocably opposed to the bipartisan Senate immigration bill unveiled recently.

“I don’t think I’m ever gonna have a vote on it. I don’t think it gets out of the Senate, and it certainly wouldn’t pass over here,” he said.