Immigration Bills Are Taking Shape, but Can One Pass?

Immigration Bills Are Taking Shape, but Can One Pass?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - January 29, 2013

Moments of bipartisanship are so fleeting on Capitol Hill these days that when a group of U.S. senators -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- introduced a rough outline for immigration reform Monday, it was considered a breakthrough. The plan, which includes a path to citizenship for illegal residents, prompted the question that will be asked about most major bills over the next two years: Can it get through the Republican-led House of Representatives?

But the lower chamber might soon have an immigration breakthrough of its own. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is a step ahead of its Senate counterpart, and is currently writing reform legislation that could be unveiled within weeks. While there is little appetite on Capitol Hill for most of the major items on the president’s second-term agenda -- gun control and climate change packages, for example -- immigration seems to be a whole other matter, with a potentially far different fate.

The House group has been working on the issue for nearly four years -- keeping its work under wraps as the details are ironed out -- but the members have been in regular communication with John Boehner, who has expressed support for a comprehensive immigration reform. The speaker hinted at the group’s progress during an address last week to the Ripon Society (a centrist GOP think tank), noting he had not seen the legislation but has faith in the members’ efforts. In a post-election interview with ABC News, he said a “comprehensive approach is long overdue.”

President Obama will travel to Las Vegas on Tuesday to unveil his immigration reform plan. The White House has its own bill to back up what emerges in the Senate. The upper chamber’s blueprint, unveiled Monday, involves a comprehensive bill to deal with four key issues: a tough but fair path to citizenship for those already here illegally (while also securing the border); rehabbing the legal immigration system to include work visas for those pursuing advanced degrees; establishing a stronger employment verification system; and hiring immigrant workers for positions not filled by Americans.

Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, along with Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, have all signed on to the framework.

McCain knows well the legislative perils. He worked with Ted Kennedy in 2007 on a comprehensive bill pushed by President Bush that ultimately failed. What caused the climate change since then? Elections, McCain said. Mitt Romney lost Hispanic voters last fall by 44 percentage points, and McCain suffered a 36-point deficit as a presidential candidate in 2008. The GOP knows it has work to do. "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens,” he said. “And we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens." 

Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the bipartisan House group, told RCP he is encouraged by the principles outlined by the senators, and called the approach “reasonable and reasoned.” The legislation soon to be introduced in the House is compatible with what the Senate group has proposed, Diaz-Balart said, though he would not elaborate on the specifics or name other lawmakers participating in the House discussions. In addition to Diaz-Balart -- a member of Cuban descent who has broken with his party before on immigration issues -- the group of fewer than a dozen lawmakers includes Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California and Texas Republican John Carter.

The House members have also been in communication with the Senate leaders on the issue. Diaz-Balart said that while House leadership wants to get something done, the process will be arduous. And while one bill is preferred, the tactics for achieving passage are unclear.

Schumer told reporters Monday that the Senate hopes to have its legislation finished and ready for debate by March with passage anticipated in the late spring or summer. Senate Leader Harry Reid praised the proposal in a floor speech Monday.

Rubio, a possible 2016 president contender whose parents came to the United States from Cuba, has become a point man on reform. He recently released a plan of his own that included a pathway to citizenship, and he has been courting conservative activists and radio hosts on his ideas. At a press conference Monday, the freshman senator said the bipartisan proposal would “modernize our legal immigration so that it reflects the reality and needs of the 21st century.”

Despite these signs of progress, there are significant hurdles. The biggest one for Republicans involves the concept of amnesty. Another involves tactics: House GOPers are reluctant to embrace a comprehensive approach, and would instead prefer piecemeal legislation.

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador (pictured), a conservative who voted against Boehner’s speakership earlier this month, was an immigration attorney before entering Congress and figures to be a key player on this issue in the lower chamber. He has told reporters that he’d like to see a comprehensive approach in the form of a series of bills that would each address a specific issue, allowing different majorities to vote for each one. “I don’t want to draw a line in sand, but it would be very difficult for me to vote for a comprehensive bill, because anytime we’ve done anything comprehensively in the United States Congress, there are a lot of unintended consequences, and a lot of problems with the bill,” he explained.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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