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CQ Roll Call | Recess Agenda: No Time to Play

August 5, 2013
In The News


Recess Agenda: No Time to Play

Most House Republicans heading home for the August recess would probably rather not talk about immigration policy. They also probably won’t have a choice.

With the Senate having passed bipartisan legislation a month ago that lays out a path to legal status for the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, pressure has been building on House Republicans to take a stand for or against, or to find a compromise.

That’s because whoever wins the August recess might well win the whole thing.The short-sleeves summer recess, with lawmakers in their districts to attend town hall meetings, cookouts and county fairs, is a crucial face-to-face lobbying opportunity for the two sides in the immigration debate.

GOP lawmakers “are going to feel the pressure from both sides,” says Rep. John Carter of Texas, a Republican member of a bipartisan House group trying to fashion a comprehensive immigration bill of the same magnitude as the Senate’s.

For his colleagues, Carter says, it remains to be seen “who screams at them the most” during the recess. Come September, he figures, “we’re either going to have people locked into their position or they’re going to be willing to look at other positions — it’s anybody’s guess.”

“But it’s going to be different,” Carter says. “I promise you.”

That’s what happened in 2006, the last time Congress left for its August break while it was struggling with major immigration legislation. Lawmakers went home hoping they could reach a compromise that would settle the question of immigration once and for all.

Instead, during the recess hard-line opponents of legalizing undocumented immigrants organized a series of town hall meetings to drum up opposition, and by the time Congress returned in September, any hope of agreement between the House and Senate was dead.

There had been no secret in 2006 about the House’s majority position. Republican leaders had pushed through a bill by Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin that would have made illegal immigration a felony, allowed state authorities to enforce federal immigration law, called for building a fence on the southern border and imposed a tougher workplace verification and inspection system. Immigration advocates called it mean-spirited. But with a crucial midterm election right around the corner, Republicans were in no mood to alienate their conservative political base.

Shifting Demographics

The politics of immigration have changed considerably over the past seven years. Latino voters have become a powerful constituency, and experts give them a large measure of credit for President Barack Obama’s re-election last year. Polls now find that roughly two-thirds of Americans support a path to citizenship. There’s also more consensus among GOP voters that the country’s immigration system is badly in need of repair, says Republican pollster John McLaughlin.

“Even though these are core, base conservative Republicans, they support legal immigration,” he says. “They think the system needs to be fixed and, with the right legislation, they would be supportive of it.”His firm, McLaughlin and Associates, recently held focus group meetings with conservative primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina and found that most support a path to legal status and citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants, provided that they pass a background check, pay fines and back taxes, learn English and get in line behind those already waiting for visas. Republican voters also believe that stronger border security and enforcement should be another precondition to legal status or citizenship, he says.

Republican opinion leaders such as Karl Rove and Jeb Bush are now openly calling for their party to take a more accommodating stance on immigration, as are some of the GOP’s rising stars, such as Sen.Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep.Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

In a stark reversal of their positions in recent years, House Republican leaders are working on a bill that would grant citizenship to people brought to the country illegally as children, and they have hinted that they may unveil legislation to grant legal status to other undocumented immigrants.

But as rank-and-file House Republicans left Washington for their recess, they were having a harder time coalescing around a position on legalization. Alabama Republican Robert B. Aderholt says they’re split down the middle. “I don’t know if this is scientific,” he says, “but I think it’s about 50-50 between willing to support something — not the Senate bill — and another 50 percent that doesn’t want to do anything.”

Roll Out the Bandwagons

The solution of advocacy groups on both sides of the issue is to roll out their campaigns to “win the recess.”

Their effort got under way as lawmakers were departing last week, with a rally outside the Capitol and civil-disobedience protests leading to arrests. Going forward, they will show up at members’ town hall meetings across the country, and they have rallies and caravan trips in the works. They are putting the final touches on advertising, op-ed and social-media outreach campaigns.A broad coalition of business, union, religious and law enforcement groups pushing for an immigration bill in the House has planned hundreds of events and meetings during the August recess designed to pressure lawmakers.

About 100 organizers from around the country gathered last week at the AFL-CIO headquarters in downtown D.C. for a closed-door strategy session to plan how to target a select group of House Republicans.

In the coming two weeks, the AFL-CIO alone has already booked at least 26 events around the country focused on immigration. The Service Employees International Union, meanwhile, has more than 50 events on the month’s calendar. Union members and allies have scheduled meetings with lawmakers back home in their districts, from North Carolina to California. They have set up phone banks in places such as Florida and New York. Tom Snyder, director of the AFL-CIO’s immigration campaign, says his organization is preparing to back its field work with up to $1 million in advertising, with a major chunk of that investment going to Spanish-language television.

“It’s a critical month,” he says. “Notwithstanding the sometimes gloom within Washington, D.C., we feel very upbeat and ramped up.”

SEIU is also taking part in an Aug. 7 national day of action. Eliseo Medina, SEIU’s secretary-treasurer, says it’s difficult to put a price tag on his union’s effort but puts it in the millions of dollars.

“After the Senate bill passed, a lot of pundits were saying immigration reform is dead on arrival in the House,” Medina says. But although the legislation may be moving more slowly than the union organizer would have wanted, he says House Republicans have already proved that they can change their minds.

The 40-some Republicans on the unions’ target list include leaders — Speaker John A. Boehnerof Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Ryan and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who chairs the GOP Conference — as well as rank-and-file members with higher numbers of Latino voters in their districts, such as Reps. Joe Heck of Nevada and Randy Weberof Texas.

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 GOP leader, will find himself a particular focus. On Aug. 13-14, activists — including those with the AFL-CIO, the SEIU and community organizations — have planned a caravan through California. They expect to hit 15 cities and multiple congressional districts in those two days. The last stop: McCarthy’s Bakersfield office.“They have a significant Latino presence in their districts but haven’t heard them — they’ve been invisible,” Medina says. “They aren’t going to be invisible any longer. They are going to look them in the eye.”

“It’s hot weather, and we’re going to make it even hotter for Rep. McCarthy,” Medina vows. Not only do the groups plan a rally — they predict that thousands of supporters will show up — but they also will conduct voter registration drives for Latino and pro-immigration constituents in McCarthy’s district.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, says the unlikely alliance of “Bibles, badges and business for immigration reform” will be the cornerstone of the August pro-immigration push.

The forum is making sure its supporters show up to members’ town halls. They are working on setting up some 50 public roundtable discussions — they have at least 18 on the books in the next three weeks — with executives, evangelicals and cops, particularly in such states as Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin. And Noorani’s group has been teeing up op-eds and interviews with local media outlets.

Congressional proponents of an immigration overhaul are letting the lobbying groups do the heavy lifting in August. House Democratic aides say the effort to sway Republicans will rely mostly on outside pressure. And although no single entity is coordinating all the events, activists say they are in touch with one another.

Democratic lawmakers have been honing their arguments, preparing for immigration questions from constituents. They’ve heard from the four Senate Democrats who helped write the Senate legislation as well as from advocates, pollsters and policy experts.

One of the Republicans who helped draft the Senate bill, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, says he has a full schedule of visits planned across his state in August to sell the immigration overhaul to skeptical audiences.

“There’s a sizable number of people in Arizona who are opposed to this,” McCain says. “I need to make my case to them.”

Not Rallying the Masses

For their part, opponents of the immigration overhaul say they are planning to motivate activists to call lawmakers and show up at their events and town hall meetings. But they’re shying away from mass rallies and other publicity-generating events.

“Our main strategy here is, of course, to try to make sure that a majority of Republicans are telling McCarthy that they don’t want any bill brought to the floor,” Beck says.Many of the group’s foot soldiers are dismayed by the House GOP leaders’ seeming willingness to consider a compromise on immigration. Beck says his troops will try to persuade rank-and-file Republicans not to follow their leaders on this issue. Once again, McCarthy will find himself in the cross hairs.

Such statements reflect the fear among immigration opponents that any immigration bill passed by the House could end up looking like the Senate bill after it goes through conference. So their solution is to oppose any and all immigration legislation.

“It’s no secret our main message is, if you hate S 744, you can’t bring anything to the floor of the House, because that’s what it’s going to become,” Beck says.

With moneyed business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Facebook backing the immigration overhaul, those who oppose it are relying largely on personal communication with their elected officials.

Beck has been compiling a list of town hall meetings for his members despite the fact that some lawmakers, afraid of making news, have decided this year to skip such meetings entirely.

Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says his group also will use the August recess to “educate, activate and dispatch the troops” against an immigration overhaul.

“When we get into fall and are writing our essay about what we did over our summer recess, it’s about spending our summer pressuring lawmakers not to go down the road the Senate did,” Dane says.

That microstrategy relies on people like Luis Pozzolo of Lexington, Ky. Pozzolo, a naturalized citizen originally from Uruguay, is the kind of activist that anti-immigration organizers would love to introduce to lawmakers.

A legal immigrant who says he has a full-time job doing accounting and information technology work for a global company, Pozzolo does not want to see others who did not follow the rules be rewarded with the promise of citizenship, echoing a key talking point used by many Republicans.

“We punish people when they break the law — you don’t reward them,” Pozzolo says.

Over the recess, he has scheduled a meeting with his congressman, Republican Andy Barr, and with other members of Kentucky’s delegation. Pozzolo’s also meeting with tea party and other conservative activists, trying to dispel the notion that those groups won’t embrace someone like him.

“Let me tell you, it’s not true,” he says. “I’m Latino. I have an accent. You can tell. I’m welcomed in every meeting.”

But Pozzolo is most energized about mobilizing like-minded activists to pay a visit to the district of House Speaker Boehner, roughly 90 miles away in Ohio. He won’t say what he has in mind but promises that it’ll be memorable.

“We have a big surprise for Boehner,” he says. “We are working with Ohio people, conservative groups. We are going to give him a surprise, so I cannot tell you. He’s going to go back to D.C. remembering there are a lot of people who oppose this amnesty bill.”

Asked about Pozzolo’s warning, Boehner’s office says it’s used to this sort of thing.

“We’re expecting a number of immigration activists, pro and con, will target Ohio 8 in some form or fashion,” a Boehner spokesman said.

Waiting and Listening

The outlook in the House has been unclear for months, as the Senate worked out its bill. The bipartisan group trying to reach agreement on a plan has spent months but to little effect.

In a sense, the leaders are waiting to see whether time away from the Capitol sharpens members’ outlook on the issue. It could well be that rank-and-file members, after hearing from folks back home, will coalesce around a single position, which they will take back to their leaders in September. That would allow Boehner and Cantor to stop wavering and start moving forward with legislation.Boehner has said only that he is listening to his members and has not decided when to bring legislation to the floor. He and other House Republicans have made clear that under no circumstances will they take up the comprehensive measure that came from the Senate in the last week of June. Rather, they would prefer incremental immigration bills, five of which have already been approved by House committees, with more in the works. None have reached the floor.

Rep. Jeff Denham, whose district in California’s San Joaquin Valley is home to many Hispanics, says his Republican colleagues are starting to move off their hard-line position against granting what they consider “amnesty,” noting that “when we’re talking about the 11 million, I would say it’s an evolving debate.”

Denham, one of the GOP’s more moderate voices on immigration, has sponsored legislation that would grant permanent legal residence to young people brought to the country illegally as children — known as “dreamers,” after the long-stalled DREAM Act — who join the military. He is also open to legal status for some of the other undocumented immigrants.

“Even colleagues that come from districts with less than 1 percent of Hispanic population are starting to look at dreamers differently,” Denham says.

Working Without a Net

This August, unlike in 2006, the House left without having taken a major vote on immigration. Republican members will not be able to tout — nor will they have to defend — their voting record when dealing with constituents. Instead, they will have to articulate their positions on their own, with few talking points to guide them.

House Republican leaders steered clear of immigration in a messaging memo advising their members how to conduct events in August. They stuck to safer issues such as energy, government regulation and health care.

With the positions of many GOP members in flux, the large and well-organized coalitions of activists working on the issue almost guarantee that lawmakers will be forced to react to emotional pleas and personal stories.

“In 2006, it was a combination of growing grass-roots opposition and growing conservative media criticism,” recalls Dan Tichenor, a political science professor at the University of Oregon. “There is certainly still a deep vein of criticism among conservative media figures for comprehensive immigration reform, but it’s much more divided than we saw in 2006.”

“It’s those who are on the fence, or who have thought about shifting positions, for whom that kind of conversation will be very difficult,” Tichenor adds.

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte got a hint of what’s ahead for August when he went home to Virginia during the Fourth of July break. A young undocumented immigrant challenged the lawmaker at a town hall meeting in Lynchburg, even though his district is only 4 percent Hispanic.

Indeed, four years after conservative tea party groups turned the once-sleepy district town hall meetings into staging areas for nationwide protest, the tactic has been adopted by advocates for and against overhauling the immigration system, trying in their own ways to win the recess.

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