RSS
How the House might pass immigration reform
The conventional wisdom is that the Senate's shiny new immigration bill will rust and die in the House. Not so fast
July 10 will likely be a stressful day for Speaker Boehner.
July 10 will likely be a stressful day for Speaker Boehner. Win McNamee/Getty Images
T

he Senate passed a bipartisan immigration package on Thursday by a comfortable 68-to-32 margin, giving a big boost to landmark legislation that's a priority both for President Obama and national Republicans.

Before anyone had a chance to break out the bubbly, though, "Republican leaders in the U.S. House made clear there is one thing they intend to do with the comprehensive immigration reform passed with great pageantry by the Senate," say Carrie Dann and Frank Thorpe at NBC News: "Ignore it."

The problem is politics. Many Republican leaders are convinced that with the U.S. Latino population growing so fast, it's a matter of survival for the party to turn around its image as antagonistic toward immigrants. Talking Points Memo's Sahil Kapur talks to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the Gang of Eight that drafted the bill:

But even if passing a big immigration bill is in the interest of the national party — a hotly debated point — it isn't necessarily a good political move for many House Republicans, who represent districts where such legislation is unpopular. Republicans control the House, 234 to 201, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has repeatedly said he won't bring the Senate bill up for a vote if it doesn't have the support of a majority of House Republicans.

That means "it's a long slog" for the immigration bill, says Dylan Matthews at The Washington Post. But it isn't hopeless. Here, three ways the House could help move the legislation to the president's desk.

1. The House can pass its own immigration package
The House had its own bipartisan Gang of Eight working on a big immigration bill — until Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) bolted. Now it's a Gang of Seven, and its package will "almost certainly include a path to citizenship, border security measures, a guest worker program, and other similar attributes to the Senate Gang of Eight bill," says The Washington Post's Matthews. Republican members of the House gang, like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), are also "optimistic about passing the bill through the House with majority support from Republicans."

If the House passes such a bill, negotiators from each party and each chamber would iron out the differences in a conference committee, with the resulting legislation coming up for a final vote in each house. Is there enough support among Republicans for this plan, especially the "path to citizenship" part? Is Boehner on board?

"Circle July 10 with red ink," say Jake Sherman and Ginger Gibson at Politico. "That Wednesday is when a hobbled, divided, and raucous House Republican Conference will meet in the Capitol basement to figure out how to address the Senate-passed bill." This is when House GOP leaders will, among other things, gauge the support for various proposals among their caucus. "It will all be tricky."

2. House Republicans can pass any immigration bill to force a conference
While the Senate Gang of Eight was working on its bill, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has been churning out his own immigration-related bills. Goodlatte, who opposes "amnesty," or giving undocumented immigrants a shot at citizenship, has moved several of his measures out of committee, and has introduced several more.

House Democrats generally oppose this piecemeal approach, especially since Goodlatte's bill focuses on border security and criminalizing undocumented immigrants, but some view it as a means to an end. The idea, says Matthews at the Post, is that "one or a package of Goodlatte's bills passes the House and then goes into a conference committee with the Senate Gang of Eight bill."

Of course, "whether the bill that gets out of conference looks anything like a comprehensive, path-to-citizenship bill is anyone's guess," Matthews says, but it would certainly move the process along and add momentum to the legislation. Boehner made this option less likely on Thursday, when he pledged that he wouldn't pass any conference-approved bill without the support of at least 218 House Republicans, either.

You should take Boehner's proclamations with a grain of salt, says Marshall Fitz at the liberal Center for American Progress. "There's a 'vote-no-pray-yes camp'" in the GOP caucus, he tells NBC News. "There are Republicans who want to get this done but who can't see going back to their home district and defending it," and that opens the door to a quietly bipartisan push in the House. And let's not kid ourselves, he adds: "There's a will to move forward."

3. House Democrats and 17 Republicans can force a vote
Despite Boehner's invocation of the "Hastert Rule" — the legislation won't pass without a majority of Republicans — it's pretty clear that "the only way to pass a bill is with Democrats supplying most of the votes," says Jonathan Chait at New York. That would seem to doom the bill, but "there's a way around this problem: The discharge petition."

What is that? Well, it's certainly "the most exotic option," says the Post's Matthews. Here's how it works: "If 218 House members sign what's called a 'discharge petition,'" he explains, "they can bring a bill to the floor without a committee vote or the cooperation of the House leadership." That means all 201 Democrats and 17 Republicans would have to sign on, but if they do, the House can approve the Senate bill "without Boehner breaking the Hastert rule and without the support of most Republicans."

The obscure discharge petition is probably most famous as a plot device in Legally Blonde 2, where Reese Witherspoon's Elle Woods character uses the maneuver to pass an animal-rights bill:

Could it work with the immigration bill? asks New York's Chait.

For the majority party, signing a discharge is an act of disloyalty against the leadership. It undermines the Speaker's ability to control what comes to a vote. But Boehner gave every indication of wanting immigration reform to pass (as most GOP elites do).... So then the question would be, could Democrats find 17 House Republicans willing to endure the wrath of conservatives to sign a discharge petition?...

Immigration reform is a very unusual circumstance. There's a natural majority for it in the House, and the House leadership privately wants it to pass but is being hemmed in by activists. Right now, the discharge petition — normally a wild long shot — looks like the straightest line to a signed bill. [New York]

If the discharge petition is immigration reform's best shot, supporters of the bill are in for a long couple of months. But the idea is plausible enough to make opponents of the legislation, like The Daily Caller's Mickey Kaus, nervous, too:

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week