Dem Negotiator Laments House GOP Putting Down Its 'Harmonious Hymnal' on Immigration

WASHINGTON – The chances of a bipartisan immigration reform measure emerging from the House appear to be declining with each side faulting the other for failing to come up with a workable compromise.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) credited the Republican lawmakers he has been negotiating with, particularly Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), with trying to find a solution to the pressing problem of undocumented workers crossing the nation’s borders.

Most House Republicans were “singing from a new and more harmonious hymnal” on immigration until last week, Gutierrez said. Then, he said, the GOP began pushing what Democratic proponents of reform view as draconian measures like the Safe Act, which would make it a crime to be “unlawfully present” in the U.S. and provide state and local officials with the authority to enforce immigration laws.

Republicans are also toeing a tougher line on border security and thus far have refused to go along with any provision that provides a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers already in the country. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced this week that he will not bring up for consideration any immigration legislation that fails to carry the support of the majority of the Republican caucus.

While he has acquiesced on a number of issues, Gutierrez said, House Republicans, who constitute a majority in the chamber, have been unwilling to cede ground.

“I ask my Republican colleagues -- when is it enough?” Gutierrez said. “But I want to keep things moving forward. So I hold my tongue, work within the bipartisan process and stay with the group. I speak well of Republicans who have partnered with Democrats on a serious bipartisan bill this year. A tough but fair bipartisan bill…is nearly complete. We’re putting aside partisan bickering to solve a difficult policy issue for the American people.”

On the other side, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), another negotiator, said a bipartisan agreement was close but it fell apart twice when Democrats insisted undocumented immigrants be eligible for subsidized healthcare programs. Republicans oppose the idea.

Diaz-Balart said the Democratic negotiators, like Gutierrez, aren’t the problem. Rather he blamed House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, for getting involved, expressing doubt that she wants to reach an immigration accord.

"We've only had one outstanding issue, which is the healthcare issue,” Diaz-Balart said on MSNBC this week. “We've had two agreements on that issue and both times the folks that I've been negotiating with have had to backtrack on their agreement. That's not coming from them -- that's coming from likely a higher pay grade."

Pelosi rejected the notion, noting that putting agreements into legislative language “so that with the principles that they agree to, are that that language, when translated to legislative language is what everybody understood it to be” can be a difficult process.

“I keep saying that because it’s really important for us to have an immigration bill,” Pelosi said. “I think that anybody who would say that I would rather have the issue than the bill just doesn’t know what they’re talking about. This is something that is so glorious for our country that we will have a bill that many of us are willing to swallow. Some things that we don’t like about the bill, some terrible poison pills, but not deadly, and that we’ll make progress on it.”

Regardless, negotiations over healthcare benefits have created some fissures. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who played a key role in the talks, withdrew from the so-called House Group of Eight piecing the legislation together when members couldn’t resolve who would be responsible for the healthcare costs of undocumented illegal immigrants.

“I have tremendous respect for the members of the bipartisan group who have been working with me to fix our broken immigration system,” Labrador said, but the bill’s framework “changed in a way that I can no longer support.”

Still, the opportunity remains for a deal. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee and the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate, has expressed his support for the House Gang of Eight effort and is contributing to the initiative.

“My motivation -- and I think the vast majority of Republicans’ motivation -- is we believe in the rule of law,” Ryan said. “We believe that we need to have better security of our border. And we want to make sure that we have laws that are adhered and followed, and we believe in economic growth. And when we’ve got baby boomers retiring -- when we’ve got 10,000 people retiring every day, as they will be for 10 years coming -- we’re going to need people.”

Ryan said he believes that eventually the House and Senate will engage in a conference committee over immigration reform and emerge with legislation that addresses the problem.

“How big and broad it is -- the House will work its will and we’ll find out,” Ryan said. “The group that we have in the House I think has been extremely constructive. I think the border language that we’ve got, the rule-of-law language that we have would be a great improvement on the Senate product. So I think we’ll show, perhaps on some of these issues, better language from my perspective, from the Republicans’ perspective, on how to approach these issues.”

Ultimately, Ryan said, the legislation is not going to provide taxpayer-funded benefits for undocumented workers or those here on a probationary basis. Instead, the bill likely will make it  “so they can get affordable health insurance so that they don’t become a public charge.”

Ryan further argued that the proposal being debated does not constitute an amnesty for illegal immigrants already here.

“The idea is, a person gets a probationary status so that they come out of the shadows,” he said. “They get right with the law, and during that probationary status, they will have paid a fine. They will pay back taxes. We’ll make sure that they’re not a convicted felon. They’ll take civics classes. They’ll learn English. They’ll get right with the law. And then, after the probationary status expires, and after everybody who did everything right -- who was already in the line -- gets through the line, only until then -- when they’re put at the back of the line -- can they consider a status readjustment. This could take as long as 15 years if a person aspires to be a citizen with what we’re looking at in the House. That is not amnesty.”

Regardless, Gutierrez said as the 4th of July deadline favored by Democratic leaders to pass the bill approaches, “we get red meat politics for the barbecue and partisan fireworks on immigration” from Republicans.

“As a Democrat I should probably stand back and watch,” he said. “If you want to hang yourself on the immigration issue, who am I to stop you? But as an American I have to tell you what I really feel.”

“Come back to your senses,” he said.