House Republicans aren’t feeling pressure to tackle comprehensive immigration reform — not from the Senate, not from the business and religious communities and not from the many GOP-aligned groups backing the effort.
From Karl Rove to Jeb Bush to Grover Norquist, an array of Republican heavyweights have called on the House GOP to embrace immigration reform.
Yet the response from many House conservatives has been little more than a shrug.
“The economy is still the main issue,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. He cited healthcare as another more pressing national priority than immigration.
Like many in the House GOP, Scalise wants to strengthen border security and fix the broken parts of the immigration system, but he and other Republicans see few incentives in agreeing to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants despite warnings of demographic doom for the GOP in national elections if the party doesn’t improve its standing with Hispanic voters.
Indeed, many rank-and-file Republicans see danger in voting for a bill that could hurt them in districts that in most cases are dominated by conservative white voters.
“I don’t really feel the public is up in arms right now,” said one House Republican leadership aide, echoing a sentiment expressed by several GOP lawmakers in recent weeks.
Democrats and immigration reform advocates say that will change.
“They’re going to feel a desire to get this done quickly,” an architect of the Senate bill, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), said on “Fox News Sunday.” He argued the House would be unable to pass its own bill and would eventually relent and accept the Senate proposal, a scenario Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has ruled out in no uncertain terms.
“This has the potential for being one of the greatest civil rights movements we’ve ever seen,” Schumer said. “I could see a million people on the mall in August asking for the bill. And who’s going to be on stage? Not the usual suspects but the bishops, evangelicals and business leaders.”
Republicans are doubtful. “It’s entirely possible that large public demonstrations could do more harm than good,” the House leadership aide said.
At the behest of the Speaker , the House is taking a more deliberate, methodical approach to immigration reform than the Senate and will begin in earnest with a special meeting of the Republican Conference on July 10.
Whether that listening session leads to swift floor votes in July or a much longer wait until the fall remains to be seen.
An obstacle for the immigration push has been a growing divide between senior members of the Republican establishment like Rove, Bush and Norquist, who believe a solution is necessary to make the party viable in the 2016 presidential election; and House lawmakers who have few Hispanic voters in their districts and are more vulnerable to Tea Party-backed challenges.
The conservative bent of some House districts has made the element of immigration reform that Democrats consider most essential — a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants — a difficult if not impossible lift for many lawmakers.
Boehner has said he wants to tackle the issue but has kept quiet on the question of a path to citizenship and decreed that any immigration bill that comes to the floor gain a majority of Republican votes. With a bipartisan group slow to release its bill, the House is more likely to advance individual proposals on border security, interior enforcement and a guest-worker program that the Judiciary Committee has approved along party lines.
But some House conservatives are opposed to any immigration legislation moving forward on the grounds that it could provide a vehicle to set up a conference committee — and an eventual compromise — with the Senate.
“My position is, don’t bring anything to the floor,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said. “Nothing good could come from that.”
Hispanic advocates acknowledge the House dynamic, but they counter that the coalition in favor of reform is significantly broader than it was during the last attempt at immigration reform in 2006 and 2007.
“Even though there may not be significant numbers [of Latino voters] in every congressional district, there are certainly Catholic parishes in all of these districts, there are Southern Baptists in many of these districts, there are evangelicals, there are businesses, there are unions,” said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. “This coalition is broader than just Latinos … and immigrants. It is a very broad coalition, and there is a commitment by all of the members of this broad coalition to make sure that everybody who has constituents … understand that this is a top priority.”
As for the possibility that the House could advance only narrow enforcement-focused bills, advocates said they were concerned more about the ends than the means.
“Just vote on something,” urged Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza. “We know that if there is a bill that is voted on in the House of Representatives, it will be conferenced with the Senate bill. So just vote on something and let them conference. The conference will be a place where we can negotiate the differences.”
Republican lawmakers say they have heard from religious and business groups, but they contend those communities are not as unified as advocates suggest.
“The faith community is divided on this issue as well,” Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said.
“It’s not just churches saying, ‘Gosh, these are nice people,’ ” he added.
People in the faith community are not simply pushing to pardon illegal immigrants, Lankford said, but they want a solution that allows people who committed a felony by entering the country illegally to seek “reconciliation” and make themselves “right by the law.”
Business groups, Lankford said, were also “pretty divided,” particularly over the particulars of future flow of immigrants and a guest-worker program.