The GOP Lawmakers Behind the Scenes of Immigration Reform

Ten lawmakers, even more opinions, mark an unorganized GOP effort, but supporters think it could be the way to passing reform.

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The push for immigration reform in the House is decidedly decentralized—some would argue disorganized—with two committees, six bills, and upward of 10 lawmakers responsible for the fate of a legislative push that could define the 113th Congress. And, according to House Republicans, that's just the way they want it.

It can be difficult for any congressional initiative to survive without strong, central leadership and a clear chain of command. But on any given day, pro-reform Republicans seem to have a different spokesman, ranging from the speaker to a backbench sophomore.

In this case, pro-reform Republicans are embracing the decidedly fragmented approach, and for the same reason that opponents of immigration reform are fearful of it: The more members involved in different aspects of the policymaking process, the likelier the House is to produce legislation that has been exhaustively vetted and enjoys majority support within the conference.

"On this issue, because there are so many diverse opinions, it works to our advantage to have different people bringing ideas forward--from security issues to workforce laws to legal status, all that," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.

Brady, one of the Republicans who wants legalization for undocumented immigrants to be tied to improvement in border security, added: "It may be counterintuitive, but I believe the more people on the Republican side we have engaged in this, the better our chances of finding and passing a solution this year."

While Speaker John Boehner bristled recently at the suggestion that he has been hands-off with immigration reform efforts, it's clear from conversations with Republican lawmakers and top House aides that Boehner has made a concerted effort to contract out the policymaking process to a group of trusted lieutenants. They are:

  • Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. Boehner said from the outset that reform efforts will go through "regular order," with bills being considered in committee before hitting the House floor. This meant most immigration bills would go through the House Judiciary Committee, with Chairman Goodlatte running the show. For months Goodlatte's panel has held hearings on various aspects of the immigration debate, and he has exercised plenty of authority over the process. (Goodlatte has introduced a bill aimed overhauling the guest worker program for agriculture-specific jobs.)
  • Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. But Goodlatte, who opposes the concept of a comprehensive bill, has often left the heavy legislative lifting to Gowdy, who chairs the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. Gowdy, another opponent of the Senate's comprehensive approach, is perhaps the leader of the House's "border-first" coalition—those lawmakers like Brady who want a border-security bill passed before any legalization measures are considered. (Gowdy earlier this year authored the Safe Act, which allows states to enforce federal immigration laws.)
  • Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. At the same time, another committee chairman—McCaul of the House Homeland Security Committee—is another central player in the border-security debate. McCaul has introduced legislation, which enjoys widespread support within the House GOP, aimed at strengthening border security and installing enforcement triggers that could ultimately determine the potential legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants.
  • House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. On that front, Cantor is spearheading an initiative to deal with legalizing a specific segment of the undocumented community. Having recently floated a trial balloon to test the support of Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, Cantor is writing a bill that is known as the "Kids Act"—legislation that would put young illegal immigrants on a pathway to citizenship. Cantor's bill, expected early this fall, will be the sixth single-issue immigration measure.
  • Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Pushing citizenship for children is one thing—and if last week's Immigration Subcommittee hearing was any indication, it enjoys significant support among House Republicans. But some members of the House majority think legal status should eventually be bestowed upon the entire undocumented community. At a town hall in his native Wisconsin last weekend, Ryan outlined a plan in which illegal immigrants receive a "probationary visa" that brings them out of the shadows while they wait—at the back of the line—for citizenship. Ryan, who commands the respect of his colleagues in the GOP conference, has been campaigning privately and publicly to convince skeptical conservatives of the case for comprehensive reform.
  • Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. Still, not everyone thinks citizenship should be the goal. Labrador, perhaps the most influential player in the debate because of his background in immigration law and his standing among conservatives, has said repeatedly that citizenship is not the only solution. Another advocate of the "border-first" approach, Labrador nodded in agreement last week as his colleague, Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico, told of how many illegal immigrants he meets aren't seeking citizenship—just legal status. Labrador, a bilingual member of the Judiciary Committee, has warned that Democrats will be responsible for the failure of immigration reform if they insist on a "citizenship or nothing" approach. Once a member of the House's "Gang of Eight," Labrador left the group earlier this year over disputes about health care for illegal immigrants.
  • "The Gang of Seven." That group, now made up of seven members (three Republicans and four Democrats), has been working for years on a comprehensive bill. A finished product was expected several months ago, but the series of setbacks and delays the group has encountered call into question whether it will ever release a bill at all. The Republicans still involved in the group are Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Reps. Sam Johnson and John Carter of Texas.

Boehner. Goodlatte. Gowdy. McCaul. Cantor. Ryan. Labrador. Two more members—Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Lamar Smith, R-Texas—authored immigration bills. Another three in the "Gang of Seven."

Are there too many cooks in the kitchen?

"I think it's a positive, actually," said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who testified at last week's hearing in favor of offering citizenship to Dreamers, as the children brought to the country illegally are known. "We need many voices reflected in this debate. The House is going to have a task before it trying to get to 218 votes; I think we can do it with [a majority of] Republicans. But there's got to be voices of many people involved to get it done."

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said the House must delegate responsibilities if Republicans are going to remain true to their preferred piecemeal approach.

"It's a complex issue that's got a lot of moving parts," Scalise said, noting that six different members are sponsoring bills. "It's healthy to have a debate with all the people who are leaders on a number of different fronts."

Of course, not everyone wants to see immigration reform achieved. There are plenty of conservative members—and several supportive outside groups—who oppose any form of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, and aren't interested in much beyond enhanced border security.

Many among that group are convinced that this decentralized movement is far more dangerous than any single, concentrated campaign. Without a primary advocate or single piece of legislation to rally against, opponents say, they are reduced to playing legislative whack-a-mole, swinging wildly to stop one issue but watching helplessly as another springs up.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.