On immigration changes, House awaits Senate's pitchJennifer Gordon in The Town Talk, February 04, 2013
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, where comprehensive immigration reform went to die in 2006, is the wild card in this year’s immigration-reform debate.
House leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach as the Senate begins crafting a bipartisan immigration-reform bill, and while advocates are optimistic about its chances, many House conservatives are sure to continue to oppose any polices that might be construed as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has signaled a willingness to tackle the issue this year in a bipartisan way, but he might have trouble getting a majority of his fellow Republicans to go along with him.
A decision to collaborate with Democrats on such a hot-button issue as immigration could put his leadership position in jeopardy.
Politically, the anti-amnesty sentiment continues to simmer with the grass-roots “tea party” activists who are often influential in GOP primaries.
And to some House Republicans, the long-term future electoral viability of the Republican Party may be a secondary priority to their avoiding a primary foe next year.
So far, Boehner has not endorsed or rejected the bipartisan framework that was announced last Monday by a group of four Democratic senators and four Republican senators.
Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, are among the so-called Gang of Eight who crafted the plan.
“Boehner is going to play this close to his chest, see what happens in the Senate and not commit too early,” said David Cort, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Why waste political capital now when he doesn’t have to? He can let the Senate go first.”
Flake, who was sworn in as Arizona’s newest senator last month after six terms in the House, understands the dilemma his former colleagues face.
“There are some who aren’t excited about taking up this thing,” said Flake, who already is trying to sell the Senate plan to House Republicans. “Anybody with elections every two years worries more about that. But I think everybody is anxious to see this in the rear-view mirror. So that’s some motivation there.”
Less risk in Senate
While there is no guarantee the Senate will ultimately pass a comprehensive bill, senators generally face fewer political risks in taking on divisive issues than House members do, analysts said.
In representing an entire state, senators tend to be accountable to a more politically diverse group of constituents and can take a more moderate view, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, immigration-law expert and professor of law at Cornell University.
They also have the relative luxury of having to face voters every six years rather than every two years as House members do.
That makes it a bit easier for them to look at issues from a longer-term perspective, Yale-Loehr said.
“Having to face re-election every two years can make a member of the House more cautious thinking about how this might affect his or her primary chances,” he said. “Republicans have to worry about a primary-election challenge from a ‘tea party’ or other conservative candidate.”
In 2006, the then-GOP-run Senate passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill co-authored by McCain and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., but it went nowhere in the Republican-controlled House, which instead passed its own tough enforcement bill that also ultimately failed.
Later that year, Republicans lost control of both the House and Senate in a Democratic wave election. Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 election.
On Wednesday, Politico reported that a group of eight House members — four Democrats, four Republicans — are quietly working on their own immigration-reform plan to offer to House leaders for consideration. None is from Arizona.
Flake acknowledged that some of his former GOP House colleagues who represent Republican-dominated districts could attract a primary foe by embracing comprehensive immigration reform.
However, even Republicans who come from areas with few Hispanic voters have an interest in solving the problem, he said.
“I hope that we have enough who say, ‘I’ll risk it in my primary, but, boy, for the good of my party, we need to broaden the base,’” Flake said.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is expected to be more open-minded toward immigration reform than his predecessor, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who has already condemned the Senate blueprint as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
Likewise, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the panel’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, is “a smart guy who approaches this thing in a very deliberative fashion,” Flake said.
“With the people in place now, from Goodlatte to Gowdy to others, we are in a better position than we were before,” Flake said.
Hopeful on consensus
While Arizona’s two senators are in a leading role on reform, many of its House members are largely silent, though some are hopeful.
Rep. David Schweikert, a Republican who represents the northeast Valley, praised the Senate’s efforts in a written statement to The Arizona Republic on Wednesday, revealing support for some principles of reform.
Like most Republicans, he argued enhanced border security is a must.
But he also said an immigration overhaul to deal with the millions of people living in the country illegally is “well overdue.”
He cautioned that such a plan should not favor illegal immigrants over those who have been waiting in line to come legally to the United States.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find a fair and equitable solution that addresses the very real problems that exist in our system of immigration and border security,” he said.
Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat from Tucson, said he expects a bloc of Republicans to oppose reform but the group may not be large enough to hold up a bill.
“Coming out of the election, Republicans are reflecting across the board on what they need to do on a number of issues, where they stand and how they’re perceived, and one of those issues is fixing the broken immigration system,” Barber said.
He pointed to “major breaks” within the Republican caucus in recent weeks that aided passage of bills on the “fiscal cliff,” Hurricane Sandy relief and the federal-debt ceiling.
“I really believe that can and will happen on immigration,” he said.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who represents a swing district in northern Arizona, also is hopeful.
“I’m optimistic both parties can agree on some of these principles ... and move past the stalemate that’s been in place so long,” Kirkpatrick said.
Freshman Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said she is grateful that Arizona’s two senators are among those who are leading the reform effort.
“It’s great for our state and it’s great for the prospect of getting reform done,” she said.
The Latino factor
The GOP-led House is more likely to pass comprehensive reform if it passes overwhelmingly in the Democratic-led Senate with strong support from Republican senators, Yale-Loehr said.
“But if it passes by just a few votes, I think that will make it harder to get something similar through the House,” he said.
If the Senate sends over a strong bipartisan bill, Boehner most likely will call the House GOP caucus together and try to convince them that passage is key to the Republican Party’s political future and its ability to attract the growing number of Latino voters, Cort said.
President Barack Obama won more than 70 percent of Latino voters in his re-election bid. Latino voters also overwhelmingly favored Democratic congressional candidates.
“I think Boehner will tell his GOP caucus that Republicans cannot afford to be blamed for the bill going down,” Cort said. “He will tell them not to give the Democrats a weapon to use against them at the polls.”
Jennifer Gordon, a law professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York City, said she believes the message will resonate with a growing number of House Republicans.
“Supporting reform may not be in the personal interests of some representatives, but it’s unquestionably in the interests of the Republican Party as a whole,” Gordon said. “The last election was a powerful message to the Republican Party. That’s what makes me reluctant to make the standard prediction of it (reform) failing in the House.”
Flake said he believes Boehner would be willing to move forward with an immigration bill even if a majority of House Republicans oppose it.
“He’s done that a couple of times recently (passed bills largely with Democratic votes), and I think he will do it again,” Flake said. “The desire to get immigration behind us extends pretty far and pretty deep, even with people who don’t necessarily agree so much with the principles or the direction of it.”
Boehner also could be helped by Republican political-action committees such as the Hispanic Leadership Network, which sent e-mails to House Republicans last week urging them to avoid inflammatory rhetoric in the coming debate that could alienate Latino voters.
The group, the Hispanic outreach arm of the American Action Network, cautioned GOP members against referring to immigrants as “illegals” or “aliens” or denouncing the Senate plan as “amnesty.”
Meanwhile, Arizona’s House members are reviving their bipartisan meetings in the new Congress, a move that the senior member of the delegation, Democratic Rep. Ed Pastor, hopes can help bring consensus on immigration and other issues.
The first outing was an evening social last month hosted by Republican Rep. Trent Franks.
Pastor plans to sponsor monthly delegation breakfasts beginning Feb. 14, and other members are expected to host events as well.
“They have their own interests, they have their own politics, they have districts they represent,” Pastor said of his colleagues. “For me, it’s holding conversations in a private manner to talk about (immigration reform) and try — as legislation is developed and passed — to speak with them and encourage and answer questions.”