CAMBRIDGE, MARYLAND — U.S. House of Representatives Republicans began two days of meetings on Thursday ready to discuss immigration reforms amid doubts among some lawmakers that they would be able to advance significant legislation in this mid-term election year.
Speaker John Boehner told reporters at the start of the closed-door conference that there would be discussions on immigration and on a series of Republican “principles” developed by leaders of the party, which controls the House.
The principles are believed to focus on ways to further secure the southwestern U.S. border against illegal entries and how to deal with the 11 million undocumented people already in the United States, while also devising ways to bring in more foreign farm workers and high-tech experts.
“I think it's time to deal with it. But how we deal with it is going to be critically important,” Boehner said as he prepared to hold what could turn into a contentious Thursday session.
Immigration reform, which President Barack Obama is pressing to achieve this year, is one of the key issues before Republicans at their retreat on the Choptank River near Cambridge, Maryland.
Early indications were that House Republicans were coalescing around advancing new healthcare legislation that they will present as an alternative to “Obamacare,” which suffered a troubled rollout in October. But such consensus was not yet forming around immigration reform legislation.
Asked whether Republicans would emerge with an alternative to a bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate in June, Boehner said only, “We're going to have that conversation today; outline the principles, have the discussion, we'll make some decisions.”
Some outspoken conservative Republicans pointedly disagreed with Boehner's desire to move forward on immigration legislation.
“It's not just the conservatives. I think a majority of the conference” think that now is “not the time to deal with the issue,” Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Labrador, who last year was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on a comprehensive immigration deal, said some Republicans fear that getting bogged down in a contentious immigration debate this year could jeopardize the party's “great opportunity” to take control of the Senate away from Democrats in the November congressional elections.
His remarks came just hours after Boehner stood before television cameras complaining that immigration reform had “become a political football. I think it's unfair.”
Contradicting Boehner on the high priority of immigration legislation, Labrador said, “I just don't think this is the time.”
He predicted that House Republicans will merely discuss their leaders' immigration principles and then “move on” to other items this year - such as an alternative to Obama's healthcare law.
Even allies of Boehner such as Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said that the first half of 2014 could go by without any action on the contentious immigration issue.
“It's probably months out, I don't know,” Walden said on the sidelines of the Republican conference.
He explained that by June, many of the Republican primary elections will be over, suggesting that House Republicans might feel more comfortable tackling immigration then.
As November's elections come closer, partisanship could reach fever pitch, dooming chances of immigration legislation, some proponents fear.
Some Republicans appeared content to blame Obama for the failure of immigration reform proposals, as they complained that he cannot be trusted to fully enforce any legislation that Congress would enact. This made them skeptical of passing new reforms.
“If you pass a bill ...the president is just going to pick and choose what he enforces,” Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest group of conservatives in the House, told reporters.
Immediately after presidential and congressional elections in 2012 that saw Democrats win huge support among Latino voters at the expense of Republican candidates, Boehner urged his party to embrace the issue of immigration reform.
But pockets of his rambunctious Republican rank-and-file have resisted, with some saying they do not need to address immigration in order to hold onto their House majority in November. The chamber's 435 seats are up for election, along with one-third of the 100-member Senate that Democrats now control.
American high-tech companies and farmers complain that under the current U.S. immigration law enacted in 1986 they cannot get enough foreign workers to staff their operations.
Democrats and increasingly active Hispanic organizations are clamoring for measures to help the 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom have established roots in the United States, if they meet certain requirements.
Many Republicans argue that rewarding any of those 11 million people with a pathway to citizenship or even work permits is tantamount to amnesty for law-breakers that would encourage a new wave of illegal immigrants.
Boehner is seeking a compromise. Some Republican lawmakers and aides said he may propose legalizing some of the 11 million, after they learn English and pay taxes and penalties. Under the principles being discussed, undocumented residents who were brought into the United States as children by their parents might be put on a track to citizenship, the sources said.