Russell Berman, The Hill, November 12, 2013
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez’s phone was ringing. It was President Obama’s chief of staff.
Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the middle of May that was on the cusp of a breakthrough agreement on immigration reform.
Denis McDonough told Gutiérrez that Obama opposed a key concession that Democratic negotiators had made to House Republicans.
Sen. Charles Schumer later called. The New York Democrat, the architect of more liberal legislation from the Gang of Eight that was advancing in the Senate, delivered an even blunter message.
“Stop the progress on the House bill,” Gutiérrez described Schumer as saying. “I want you to stop. You are damaging the Senate proposal moving forward.”
The White House and Senate Democrats did not want a more conservative House plan — designed to pass muster with a Republican majority — to emerge before the Gang of Eight’s proposal had passed on the Senate floor.
Lacking support from party leaders, Democrats in the House group suffered from internal divisions over how far to bend in their bid to reach a deal that could set up a compromise with the more favorable Senate bill.
Tempers flared frequently between Gutiérrez, the colorful Chicago lawmaker revered by immigration advocates, and Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), a Los Angeles liberal who had risen up the ranks of the Democratic leadership.
Immigration reform is widely seen as dead in this Congress, and the finger-pointing has already started.
Both parties are responsible for the effort’s demise.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), for example, refused pleas from GOP negotiators for a commitment to move the House bill. Republicans could never give Democrats a clear sense of how many GOP lawmakers might support the proposal if it ever reached the floor.
Inside the House Group of Eight, momentum toward a deal slowed as negotiations became bogged down in a dispute over healthcare. By the end of May, the group had lost its self-described conservative hardliner, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who quit despite pleas from top Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), that he stay at the table.
The remaining seven met through the summer, but their moment had passed.
The group’s collapse after more than four years of talks left the House without a bipartisan immigration proposal to rival the Senate bill that passed in June, and a year after Obama’s reelection, the prospects for his top second-term domestic priority are bleak.
But in a series of interviews with The Hill over the past two months, Democratic and Republican negotiators said the group’s failure stemmed from divisions among Democrats over strategy and policy, as well as Boehner’s refusal to put his weight behind the bill and help steer it through the House.
This account is drawn from extensive interviews with six members of the group and several of their advisers. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to reconstruct, for the first time, private negotiations that occurred over several years.
Leaders in both parties, including Boehner, once had high hopes for the group, which formed before Obama took office in 2009. The Speaker had made clear in public and in private that the House needed to tackle immigration reform after the 2012 election, and he told Republicans he thought the group represented the chamber’s best chance for success.
Gutiérrez had been a co-sponsor of bipartisan House legislation during the last major immigration push in 2006-2007. He attended early meetings of the new group, but when he saw the discussions moving to the right, he bolted.
At its peak, the group included more than 20 members. Its hallmark was secrecy.
Meeting over take-out dinners in House conference rooms, the members kept their deliberations hidden not just from the public, but also from the Obama White House.
While Democratic negotiators occasionally updated senior officials and the president was aware of the group, Democrats refused to tell the White House which Republicans were at the table. And even after they drafted and reviewed a 500-page bill earlier this year, lawmakers never showed it to senior White House officials.
In the early months of the Obama presidency, immigration reform fell down the list of priorities, and when the political environment turned toxic over healthcare, Democrats pulled back.
When Republicans won the House majority in the wave election of 2010, the bill was shelved.
For the next two years, members of the group had only informal conversations, but after Obama won a second term in November 2012, he signaled that immigration reform would be a top priority in 2013.
As winter turned to spring in 2013, the House negotiators — still working nominally in secret — were racing against their much more public counterparts in the Senate to lay down the first marker on immigration reform.
Once the members had settled on a path to legalization, the talks advanced quickly, and some in the group wanted to go public with a framework for legislation, if not a complete bill.
Ultimately, the Senate Gang of Eight finished first, unveiling its 844-page bill with fanfare on April 16.
The concessions made by Schumer and fellow Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.), spilled over into the House talks, where Democrats were forced to drop demands for provisions favored by liberals, such as a diversity visa program prized by the Congressional Black Caucus and by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
To win conservative support, Republicans demanded a “hard trigger” to tie the path to legalization for immigrants to progress in implementing either the border security or interior enforcement parts of the bill. One idea that Democrats rejected was to give immigration enforcement power to state and local law authorities, similar to controversial Arizona legislation that the Supreme Court had partially invalidated.
Democrats instead agreed to a trigger on the employment verification system, known as E-Verify, which could have resulted in immigrants losing their probationary legal status if the new program was not implemented within five years.
The E-Verify trigger remained in the bill.
Neither the White House nor Senate Democrats were happy. The Senate bill contained no such hard trigger, and with that proposal advancing steadily toward a floor vote, party leaders worried that the introduction of a more conservative House proposal would scare off Senate Republicans — particularly Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — or cause them to demand similar concessions in the Gang of Eight plan.
“If this proposal had moved forward before the Senate bill passed, there would have been no bill in the House, and no bill in the Senate, period,” a Senate Democratic aide said.
McDonough called Gutiérrez and Lofgren to voice the president’s opposition. Schumer and other Senate Democrats followed suit, urging them, at the very least, to hold off on any announcement before the Senate bill made it off the floor.
“The request wasn’t that the House never move forward, the request was that the House wait,” the Senate aide said. “Democratic senators, the White House, and Leader Pelosi believed that pushing a proposal to the right of the Senate bill before it had even been passed would have sent Republican senators running from the bipartisan process, and would have all but eliminated any hopes of having a path to citizenship at the end of the day.”
The House Democrats refused to make that commitment, but despite pressure from Republicans — including Boehner — to speed up their bill, the negotiations dragged through May and June.
Multiple Democrats in the House group said they understood the concerns of McDonough and Schumer, but said the White House never took seriously their warnings that the House GOP would not accept the Senate bill and that the lower chamber needed its own bill to set up a conference committee.
“It is clear to me that there was no strategy on the White House’s part post-Senate victory. Because the Senate victory was the strategy,” Gutiérrez said.