WASHINGTON – House Republicans have proved unable to coalesce behind leadership plans for wide-ranging immigration reform, dimming prospects for getting legislation dealing with the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants passed this year.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who has played a central role in the ongoing immigration debate, said reports that GOP lawmakers were lining up behind principles staked out by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are “just not true.” Instead, there exists “overwhelming support for the idea of doing nothing this year.”
“I do think we need to address the issue, but I think when we take back the Senate in 2014 that one of the first things we should do next year after we do certain economic issues, I think we should address the immigration reform issue,” Labrador said.
Boehner appeared to substantially yield to the view of Labrador and others on Thursday, acknowledging to reporters that “it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation” in 2014 as long as Republican House members maintain doubts over whether President Obama “can be trusted to enforce our laws.”
The speaker said he “never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year” but hoped to do so because “it’s been kicked around forever and it needs to be dealt with.” But continued GOP suspicions over White House motivations have rendered drawing the necessary support fruitless.
By all but throwing in the towel this session, Boehner joins Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who said there exists an “irresolvable conflict” between the massive reform measure that passed the upper chamber last year and the path being blazed in the House.
“I don’t see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place,” McConnell said.
Despite the obvious setback, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama remains “optimistic about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in 2014.” The administration has detected “significant movement” within the House Republican leadership and believes the two sides can still work together to generate the necessary support.
“Nothing this important, nothing this comprehensive comes fast or easy in Washington,” Carney said. “This won’t be any different.”
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, said his party initially reacted positively to efforts by the House GOP leadership to develop a consensus on immigration but it is now “somewhat disappointed” at the decision to throw cold water on the initiative.
“This is a question of what is morally right to do,” Hoyer said. “To fix a broken system that is breaking apart families, undermining our economy and abandoning what so many say is the right thing to do. So with all due respect to this, frankly, trying to distract us on this trust issue, this is not a trust issue. This is an issue of law and the administration’s performance both on border security and on enforcing the law in this respect, a bad law, a law that ought to be changed, a law that’s causing families to be torn apart.”
Congress for years has debated, thus far without resolution, the best way to deal with the ongoing problem of illegal immigration. Last June, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed its first major piece of immigration legislation since 1986 in a 68-32 vote with 14 of 45 Republicans offering support. The measure offers illegal immigrants who have resided in the U.S. since Dec. 13, 2011, an opportunity to seek provisional legal status that allows them to work but renders them ineligible for federal benefits. They must pay a penalty, taxes and a processing fee and can only apply for permanent status after 10 years. A new visa program for low-skilled workers would also be developed.
It also hikes border patrol ranks by 20,000 – almost doubling the contingent at a cost of $30 billion — and adds 350 miles of border fencing. It spends $4.5 billion on technical innovations intended to provide security personnel with full situational awareness along the southern border. And it implements an entry-exit visa program to keep tabs on visitors who overextend their stay as well as the so-called e-verify program to make employers aware of a potential worker’s immigration status.
House GOP leaders immediately dismissed the Senate package but vowed to offer alternatives that focused on border security while rejecting a path to citizenship. And instead of packaging the provisions together, House Republicans planned to change immigration law by voting on a series of bills. Leadership remains reluctant to package disparate immigration measures into one bill, a la Obamacare, which remains the focus of overwhelming GOP enmity. The chance of the chamber developing an omnibus measure is slight, with lawmakers instead preferring a piece-by-piece approach, breaking the initiative into several component parts, each to be voted on individually.