July 10, 2013 -- In order for immigration reform to become law, House Republican leaders are going to need to step up to the plate.
Republican lawmakers on Wednesday met for over two hours behind closed doors to discuss the path forward on immigration reform. Leaders, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), urged the House to act for the good of the party. But GOP congressman came out of the meeting with no clear plan on how to move forward.
House Republicans agree on a couple of broad strokes. They don't like the Senate immigration bill that passed last month and they want border security measures to precede any legalization of undocumented immigrants. And there is a deep mistrust of negotiating with President Obama on the issue.
"Trusting Obama w/ border security is like trusting Bill Clinton w/ your daughter," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) tweeted after the meeting.
Beyond that, there are still significant divisions. And members indicated that major votes on legislation are unlikely to occur until after the August recess.
"The leadership is going to have the opportunity now that they have heard everybody to come up with some sort of pathway -- no pun intended -- to get to something on the House floor," Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said.
The key division that leaders must address is between those who want to allow undocumented immigrants to earn legal status and those who don't. President Obama and Democrats have made it clear that they will only accept immigration reform that includes a clear path to citizenship for the undocumented.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hardliner, said that the split in the conference on legalization -- even short of full citizenship -- is "just about 50-50."
We've known for months that there is a large amount of House Republicans who are dead set against a path to citizenship.
But beyond that, there does appear to be a degree of support for provisions that would allow some undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens. Several members indicated they could back a pathway to citizenship, although they did everything they could to avoid the term. But that pathway could be stricter and include many less people than the Senate's plan.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) predicted that the House could pass "fully comprehensive immigration reform" that deals with the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. He said that members are looking at three categories, "those who should remain, those who should not remain, and then those fall under guest-worker or other programs."
Issa and others said there is an emerging consensus around allowing DREAMers to earn their citizenship. But GOP lawmakers remain divided on whether to extend that provision to other categories of immigrants.
In the end, leaders like Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) will have to resolve this question if they want to craft a plan that can pass the House and that Senate leaders will accept for negotiation.
The problem is that those very leaders have laid down preconditions that could make it tough for that to happen. Boehner reportedly reiterated inside the meeting that he won't bring a bill to the floor that does not have the majority support of his conference. And right now, it doesn't appear that a majority of Republicans back a path to citizenship.
Obama and Democratic leaders in the Senate may also balk at the hard border security triggers for legalization that members demanded after the meeting. And House GOP leaders signaled they are just as distrustful of Obama on immigration as the rank and file.
"This administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate," leaders said in a joint statement after the meeting.
There are some who believe that the decision to dig in by GOP leadership portends a death knell for immigration reform. And there are others who believe it's simply a negotiating ploy. But if immigration is to succeed, leaders will eventually need to take a political risk and work to build a consensus around a proposal that includes a path to citizenship.
Otherwise, immigration reform, and the GOP's gateway to Latino voters, could get stuck in the morass of the House Republican rank and file for good.