Why Immigration Reform Could Die in the House

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio holds up a gavel in the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, after being re-elected House Speaker as the 113th Congress began. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (National Journal)

As immigration reform begins its journey through the byzantine halls of the Senate and Washington fetes another bipartisan "Gang," spare a thought for the other side of the Capitol building. Immigration reform sputtered in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2006, and the political and demographic makeup of this year's House GOP hints why we could be headed in that direction again.

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With very few exceptions, legislation cannot advance in the House without the support of a "majority of the majority" party. A Senate-passed immigration proposal probably had enough votes to pass the House, too, in 2006, but House Republicans never let it get to the floor, because their caucus didn't support it.

Fully 111 of the 233 House Republicans represent districts that are more than 80 percent white. Not only have many of those members opposed measures beyond improving border security in the past, but there are also no natural pressure groups for immigration reform in their districts. The Democratic Caucus, which is largely unified in support of some sort of immigration-reform proposal, has just 31 members from such very white districts.

Meanwhile, at least 216 House Republicans come from districts that voted for Mitt Romney over President Obama in November. Jobs and the economy were the prevailing issues in these areas, but the voters in those districts also proved they weren't turned off by a candidate who championed "self-deportation" as an immigration policy.

These factors add up to a House Republican Conference entrenched in the areas of the country that, just three months ago, signaled very strong support for the GOP in its 2012 iteration, whichwas uninterested in immigration reform. And while the national party has embarked on a period of introspection forced by a crushing national loss, many House Republicans saw their individual victories as mandates to carry on. A number of members represent districts so safe -- both politically and demographically -- that they don't need to step out on immigration reform. Some surely fear potential primaries more than standing in the way of a deal: State legislatures across the country are dotted with ambitious Republicans who voted for Arizona-style immigration-enforcement laws over the past few years. There are murky incentives, at most, for GOP representatives from this overlapping cross-section to support bipartisan immigration reform.

Those Republicans who do aggressive minority outreach may also end up opposing an immigration-reform package. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., opposes a pathway to citizenship for adult undocumented immigrants, his office said, and a Dream Act solution for younger immigrants might or might not get his support, depending on the specifics. Still, the second-term Republican "is not seen as inflexible on immigration reform," according to Nevada politics guru Jon Ralston. That is in large part because Heck made sure -- before and during his first term in a suburban, 36 percent nonwhite district -- to establish roots in his constituency's minority communities.

Heck makes regular visits to Hispanic chambers of commerce, Filipino businesses, and even an out-of-district Chinatown where many of his constituents shop, to connect with minority voters who have been slipping away from the GOP. Heck prevailed in November even as Romney trailed Obama in Nevada's 3rd Congressional District. When asked if Republicans in general were making outreach efforts like his, Heck responded, "Honestly, I don't believe they are."

"As a party we have to realize that those who ignore ethnic voters do so at own peril," Heck said in a December interview on improving Republican outreach. And to him, that includes those House members who don't have many ethnic voters in their districts. "I would say they need to look past their own political future and their own districts," Heck said. "While they may be in a safe district or a non-minority district, for the party to be sustainable in the future we've got to think about things at a national scale. Not 'how does this affect me and my district.' "

Popular Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has undergone a significant, public evolution on key pieces of immigration reform, and he could provide cover for some "flexible" Republican House members, like those whose districts have large minority populations, to support an immigration-reform bill on the floor. But just 47 House Republicans represent districts that are less white than the national average, not nearly enough power to bring a bill to the floor of the House. The fate of immigration reform will rely on many Republican members who have never even stretched their muscles on minority outreach, and that might be too much to overcome.