Conservatives revolt against Boehner on immigration
By: Seung Min Kim
April 30, 2014 05:51 PM EDT
John Boehner teased them last week for whining about the fact that they couldn’t tackle a tough topic like immigration reform.
But conservative immigration foes have yet to let go of the speaker’s remarks about them.
In the aftermath, they are stepping up their efforts to thwart any plan that might be afoot among House leadership to jam reform through the House by the end of this year. A group of conservatives plans to meet and strategize this week, and are scouring bills searching for offending language that might somehow slip through their gates.
“We have to man the watchtowers 24/7,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), referring to a feeling among hard-liners that House leaders will try to sneak through immigration measures.
Conservatives intend to huddle this week about immigration, according to Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), an outspoken critic of providing legal status to undocumented immigrants and encouraging more legal migration in the future. Brooks declined to disclose more details about the meeting, including how many lawmakers are involved.
“It is difficult to plan a specific course of action when the leadership keeps tossing out vague ways to give amnesty to illegal aliens,” Brooks said. The sophomore lawmaker added: “When we see a specific plan from the House leadership, then those of us who favor American citizens first will have a better idea of where the leadership is specifically going and how we will specifically respond.”
Since the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform last year, House conservatives have fiercely guarded against passage of a large overhaul in their chamber — and even over approval of smaller bills — because they are concerned about a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. This small group of immigration reform opponents is threatening House GOP leadership with their jobs if they take up an overhaul.
These conservatives still believe their leaders would like to see reform succeed — despite its unlikely prospects — and Boehner’s theatrical pantomiming last week in Ohio of conservatives behaving like babies when it comes to an immigration overhaul has not helped matters for them.
Conservatives also took notice of comments from Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, who last week told a local newspaper that she could see immigration legislation making its way to the House floor by August.
“That comment is unfair to the people who are very sincere about their concerns about people who came here illegally,” Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said, referring to Boehner’s remarks. “There are a number of members — we’ll find out over the next few months — who feel like we need a change of leadership. We need a new direction.”
Jones is one of 12 members who voted against Boehner for speaker in January 2013.
Brooks, who supported Boehner for speaker in that election, added that the GOP leadership’s handling of immigration is a reason why House Republicans need to clean house in their top ranks. He noted that the four highest-ranking House GOP leaders — Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and McMorris Rodgers — all hail from blue or purple states. A better balance, Brooks said, would be to have two Republicans in leadership who hail from red states and two from states that favor Obama and Democrats.
A handful of conservatives have not been pacified by assurances from leadership that it isn’t quietly conspiring to carve out a legislative pathway to reform. Furthermore, they aren’t mollified by their party’s rhetoric blaming lack of progress on reform on distrust of President Barack Obama — who they think might not enforce immigration laws in the same way he hasn’t enforced Obamacare.
Boehner and McMorris Rodgers have since walked back their comments somewhat.
Boehner clarified his immigration jokes during a closed-door party meeting Tuesday, and told reporters that it wasn’t mockery of House Republicans, but rather good-natured teasing that’s characteristic of the Ohio Republican.
“There’s no mocking. You all know me. You know, you tease the ones you love, all right?” Boehner said Tuesday. “But some people misunderstood what I had to say.”
And a McMorris Rodgers aide said the lawmaker was simply expressing her personal views on wanting to see immigration reform done, rather than sketching out a legislative timeline.
But their comments, combined with favorable remarks during the April congressional recess by a handful of rank-and-file House Republicans calling for an immigration rewrite, boosted optimism among advocates and put opponents on notice.
These anti-immigration reform conservatives are now scouring House bills with renewed vigor, looking for provisions in legislative language that could potentially lead to a House-Senate immigration conference, King said. They’re doing so despite repeated assurances from Boehner that House Republicans will not negotiate on the comprehensive Senate bill.
They are also raring for an immigration floor fight during debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, a sweeping, must-pass annual bill that sets the nation’s defense policy. California Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican who backs reform, is lobbying to attach his measure, which would give legal status to young undocumented immigrants who serve in the military, to the overall defense bill.
A swift uproar from hard-liners quieted an initial attempt to include Denham’s measure, called the ENLIST Act, into the base NDAA language — but Denham has said he will push for a vote on the floor as an amendment.
Immigration reform — on life support since last summer — is hitting a critical moment. Key lawmakers privately acknowledge that if the House doesn’t put immigration bills on the floor by sometime in July, reform efforts are dead.
But at the same time, Obama is under substantial pressure from activists on his left to ease the number of deportations that immigration advocates say have reached a record level under his administration. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is examining the administration’s enforcement policies to see whether they can be administered more humanely, and results of that review are expected in the coming weeks.
Republicans are almost certain to protest Obama if his administration enacts sweeping enforcement changes to immigration law — putting passage of immigration reform on Capitol Hill in even greater danger.
“I’m out there speaking to colleagues on the issue, and every day I get more and more members who understand that what we have right now is unacceptable,” said Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, one of the chief Republican proponents of immigration reform in the House. Diaz-Balart has a broader legalization bill that has yet to be made public, but he said he believes it is “policy that is reasonable, that is fair, that can get strong bipartisan support.”
Asked about recent developments on immigration, Diaz-Balart said he now pegs the chances of immigration reform at about 45 percent, adding: “I think 15 [percent] is the highest I ever went before.”
Other conservatives who oppose immigration reform were not so critical of their leaders.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said Boehner assured members during the private meeting Tuesday that leadership has no “secret conspiracy” to pass immigration reform. And Fleming was satisfied with Boehner’s explanation of his comments.
“I felt very good about his comments that he’s not changed his position, where we need to be on this,” Fleming said. “In fact, he sounds a little stauncher than he has before.”
Still, that won’t reassure some opponents of immigration reform.
“There is very little doubt the Republican leadership team wants to move on a broad-based immigration plan that includes amnesty,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for the conservative outside group Heritage Action for America. “If they move before November though, they run the very real risk of demoralizing the very voters who are now highly motivated.”
King, the Iowa lawmaker, also said he is convinced leaders will continue to push immigration reform efforts this year.
“When John Boehner said he was hell-bent,” King said, referring to a recent Wall Street Journal that reported the speaker’s comments at a private fundraiser. “He wasn’t kidding.”