WASHINGTON — Meeting for the first time as a group to hash out their approach to immigration, House Republicans on Wednesday came down overwhelmingly against a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.
Despite the resistance, Speaker John Boehner warned his balking troops about the steep price of inaction, telling House Republicans that they would be in a weaker political position against a bipartisan Senate coalition and President Barack Obama if they did nothing to answer the immigration measure passed by the Senate last month.
House Republicans met in a crucial 2 ½-hour session in the basement of the Capitol as their leaders tried to devise some response to the demand for immigration legislation, especially the Senate provision that would grant a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. The bill also mandates tough border security provisions that must be in place before the immigrants can gain legal status.
The bottom line was clear: The Republican-controlled House does not plan to take up anything resembling the Senate bill, which many believe is bad policy and smacks of an amnesty strongly opposed by the conservative community that holds significant sway over the rank-and-file. They also do not intend to move very quickly, and some Republicans are wary of passing any measure that could lead to negotiations with the Senate, talks that could add pressure to the House to consider a broader plan.
The party schism pits establishment figures such as former President George W. Bush and possible White House contender Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on one side and the party's potent conservative base on the other.
House Republican leaders struck a defiant tone after the meeting, issuing a joint statement declaring that the Obama 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." Boehner repeatedly reassured Republicans that he would pass nothing through the House that did not have the support of a majority of his party, and lawmakers left the meeting certain that nothing significant would move through the House until September — and possibly much later.
" 'Comprehensive' has always been a swear word in the House of Representatives, but having a step-by-step approach that deals with the issue comprehensively, I don't think that's dead," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a Hispanic legislator who, until recently, had been part of a bipartisan group in the House working on a broad immigration proposal.
Instead, House Republicans will consider a piecemeal approach, passing several individual bills rather than one large package, as the Senate did. Any immigration proposal, members said, is likely to concentrate on border security and enforcement; a path to legalization or citizenship, they stressed, must come later — if at all.
Although they may pass one or two modest bills before the August recess, many members said that they felt no particular urgency to deal with an immigration overhaul, with the fall likely to be dominated by fights over the budget and the federal debt ceiling.
House Republicans largely believe that the concerns of their national party elite are overblown, and that their political future and 2016 prospects do not hinge on successfully passing an immigration bill this year.
"Is this an issue that people care about? Yes. Is it one that keeps them up at night? Probably not," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who is among the more moderate Republicans who could be part of a compromise.