Republicans Can't Agree with Each Other on Immigration Reform
About that GOP epiphany on immigration after the election, there’s one small problem that could scuttle a deal: Republicans in Congress can’t even agree on what to do.
Some want piecemeal reform, picking off the most popular planks and leaving the tough stuff — like whether to give millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship — for later. Others side with Democrats in saying only a comprehensive deal will get at the problem.
The same rifts that existed long before the election are still there. So at least at this early date, there’s scant evidence that the deal that looked so promising on Nov. 7 will materialize.
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“Doing a comprehensive bill is a big mistake,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said. “What you end up having is a bill that nobody likes. Everybody hates one piece of it. It’s a way to actually avoid doing what we need to do to solve the immigration problem.”
Republicans such as Labrador who favor a piece-by-piece approach believe that starting with the more politically digestible pieces could build bipartisan momentum for a broader overhaul. They also note the frustration bred by big legislative efforts such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
(PHOTOS: 20 quotes on immigration reform)
“There’s going to be a natural desire to try to pair things up” on immigration, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the incoming Senate minority whip. “But at some point, the bill gets so big and cumbersome that I think by virtue of the size alone, that that makes it harder to pass.”
The general outlines of a comprehensive package are clear. It would include provisions on border security and law enforcement, reforms to the legal immigration system and some sort of solution for the illegal immigrants living in the United States.
It’s that last piece that Democrats fear would get left behind if Congress took apart immigration reform. A pathway to citizenship is the one thing Democrats and immigration advocates will insist on, but it’s sure to encounter the strongest GOP resistance.
“That is probably the part of immigration reform that needs the greatest reform,” said Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), the outgoing chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “That’s why I’ve never really understood that people really believe that this piecemeal thing is going to get us anywhere.”
“Why only half fix the problem? Let’s go ahead and fix the whole thing,” added California Rep. Xavier Becerra, the incoming House Democratic Caucus chairman. “If you’ve got a machine that’s not working well, you’re not going to fix just half of it and have it still not work well, let’s go ahead and fix it right.”
This piecemeal dilemma is exemplified in the House immigration bill on tap this week. The measure, which will come up for a floor vote Friday, would boost the number of available visas for high-skilled immigrants with advanced U.S. degrees in science, technology, engineering or math. It is strongly backed by Republicans.
But the White House signaled its opposition, rejecting “narrowly tailored proposals” and instead calling for a broader, nonincremental approach to fixing immigration laws. That should include attracting high-skilled foreigners, reunifying families, bolstering enforcement of existing immigration laws and building a path toward citizenship, the administration said. The bill is also going nowhere in the Democratic-led Senate.
“I’m disappointed in the White House playing politics with the bill,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday. The administration “just said they want to wait until next year and make it part of a larger immigration bill.”
“What Democrats are doing is, they’re playing political football with immigration,” Labrador said. “They’d rather have the issue than solve the issue because they know if they have the issue, they can kick us with it again and again and again.”
Democrats and Republicans struck a rare note of unity on immigration reform after the election. The drubbing that Republicans took among Latino voters prompted the biggest wave of momentum for an overhaul of immigration laws in a half-decade.
Though concrete legislative action isn’t expected until at least next year, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill this month have made separate pushes toward immigration reform. In the Senate this week, a pair of lame-duck senators introduced a more conservative-friendly version of the DREAM Act, acknowledging that the bill is most likely headed nowhere but nevertheless calling for Congress to jump-start talks on immigration.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus rolled out principles that its members insist should be components of a comprehensive immigration package. At the top of the nine-point list is a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. This framework has the blessing of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who tweeted her support.
“Unless you have a comprehensive approach, you really don’t solve the problem at the end of the day,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Many Republicans agree, including veterans of Congress’s last effort to overhaul the immigration system five years ago.
“I think comprehensive is the best way, in my view,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who negotiated with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) on immigration reform. “Include everything.”
McCain’s home-state colleague, Republican Sen.-elect Jeff Flake, said as long as border security is prioritized, “then I’d rather have comprehensive — the whole thing together.”
But other Republicans look to the failed efforts in 2007 as evidence that comprehensive just won’t work. Outgoing Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said doing immigration reform in steps would be an easier approach, likening the negotiations five years ago to somewhat of a legislative Whac-A-Mole game.
“Every time you tweaked one part of comprehensive reform, something else then became an issue or a question,” she told reporters earlier this week. “Frankly, if someone was in agreement on one part, they might be in disagreement on the other part. And when you fixed one, then one fell out of the group.”
“We don’t do comprehensive well in the Senate and normally, it goes awry,” added Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), arguing that an “unhealthy cabal of special interests … put the last bill in the gutter.”
Still, there are some signs of quiet progress on Capitol Hill. Small gangs of eager negotiators have already started to talk to forge compromise on immigration.
Almost immediately after the Nov. 6 elections, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who had outlined a comprehensive immigration proposal two years ago, announced that they were in discussions again.
Other lawmakers such as Flake, Menendez and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said they have talked with members from across the aisle on getting immigration reform done. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that Becerra, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) have also restarted talks that went dormant in 2010.
“There are going to be any number of discussions in the Senate and the House to cut a deal with how we tackle immigration reform and do it quickly and right,” Becerra said of those talks. “I think everyone is interested in listening and talking and the good thing is, they’re bipartisan conversations.”
Still, Democrats will insist on a comprehensive deal.
“It would probably be most efficient just to do the whole thing. We know what the elements would be,” said Lofgren. “It’s just big chunks of elements and there’s different ways to deal with them, but it’s actually not that complicated.”
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