Conservative Agenda Push Begins With Immigration

The right's wish list includes confrontations with Obama on border policies, health care.

Frustrated Senate GOP conservatives are champing at the bit to attack President Obama on immigration -- but they say they've barely heard a word on the subject from Mitch McConnell.

Sens. Ted Cruz, Lee, Jeff Sessions, David Vitter and others on the right are pushing the majority leader to bring up the Homeland Security funding bill the House passed Wednesday, which includes a broad swipe at Obama's immigration policies, immediately after the Senate approves Keystone Pipeline legislation, if not sooner. With a February deadline to fund the Department of Homeland Security, members want time to debate and amend the bill, staffers say, and the earlier McConnell brings the bill to the floor, the more time they'll have to pressure Democrats to sign on.

But the silence from McConnell has them worried. He has brushed over the issue with them in private; in public, he's mentioned immigration just once since the new Congress began -- and only when he was asked. The conservatives hope that will change at the joint House-Senate GOP retreat that began Wednesday in Hershey, Pa.

"We need to take up the House bill, we're going to have regular order so the Democrats are going to get to try to strike certain parts of it. "¦ We don't want to have this discussion at the last week of February," an aide to a conservative senator said Wednesday.

Though Senate conservatives are pleased with McConnell's promise of a return to regular order and open debates, they're concerned GOP leaders may alter the bill to attract Democrats. The majority will need at least six Democrats to join them in order to pass the bill, and Democratic leadership staffers say they won't get those votes.

In the House, conservatives are pleased "“ for now, anyway -- with Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team, who pushed a Homeland Security bill through the House that takes a tough immigration stand, even at the expense of angering many of their centrists.

But House conservatives are not resting on the success of their immigration vote. They are starting to outline a broader agenda they want their leadership to spearhead. The Republican Study Committee met this week to discuss their five-pillar plan, and Rep. Jim Jordan, who is preparing to lead a competing group of House conservatives, outlined his wishes at a meeting organized by the Heritage Foundation.

Those agendas vary, but near the top of every list is a full repeal of Obamacare, and conservatives are already pressuring leaders to bring such a bill to the floor. RSC Chairman Bill Flores has been given assurances by leadership that a repeal bill will see a House vote before the February recess, said his spokeswoman.

"He had that conversation with members and then took that to leadership, and we're anticipating a vote on that," Caitlin Carroll said. "He's pushing for next week, but he's said that he's gotten assurances that it will be before the February recess."

Rep. Steve King is also advocating for an Obamacare repeal to be prime topic at the GOP retreat. His office sent an email to Republican chiefs of staff this week urging them tell their bosses to pressure leadership at the retreat into bringing a repeal bill to the floor, as first reported by Politico.

Jordan, meanwhile, said he wants to see a broader economic agenda that rejects corporate cronyism. House leaders have said the chamber will vote on trade promotion authority, repealing Obamacare's medical device tax and corporate tax reform. But Jordan said in a keynote speech at Heritage that the party risks alienating the middle class by moving only those measures.

"I think we're at one of those rare moments when our party better understand what's at stake," he said. "Can you imagine, what if the Republican party said, 'We're going to stop the cronyism, we're going to stop the favoritism'? "¦ What if we said, 'Instead of letting all that stuff take place, we're going to represent regular middle class families'?"

He said he wants to throw out the tax code entirely, repeal the Export-Import Bank and end what he called handouts to green energy companies.

In the Senate, the legislative agenda so far for this Congress is light. Aside from some issues they feel they can send to the president, including the Keystone Pipeline, trade and a repeal of the medical-device Tax, McConnell is leaving much of the agenda-setting to his committee chairs, a move that's winning him allies in the party's conservative and establishment wings. But that hasn't stopped conservatives from highlighting some priorities of their own, including a robust immigration response, an ambitious overhaul of the tax code, increased border security and higher education reforms.

The focus from leadership on Keystone in the first weeks of the 114th Congress -- legislation that is expected to pass easily and has narrow effect -- over immigration has been maddening for many conservatives. After being asked to hold off on immigration at the end of 2014, members expected a robust response this year.

McConnell is waiting to hear from his members before discussing the immigration issue further, deputy Chief of Staff Don Stewart said this week. "Members are having discussions about how we're going to proceed on that. "¦ McConnell doesn't come in and make every decision in the world. They have a series of discussions to figure out how they're going to do it. The chairmen are involved and the members are involved," Stewart said, noting that those conversations will continue at the retreat and after members return to Washington on Tuesday.