The prospects for an immigration overhaul effort that could reshape the contours of American society appeared grim Wednesday after a closed door meeting of House Republicans.
A majority of the fractious House Republican Conference lined up in opposition to (barely) bipartisan legislation already approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate, despite the urging of leaders to do something on the issue.
NPR's Tamara Keith tells us that after the meeting, Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn said "there's almost unanimous agreement among the Republicans that the Senate bill is fatally flawed."
The Senate bill includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a provision that's anathema to the majority of House Republicans, most of whom reside in electorally safe, predominantly white districts.
California Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said: "There was pretty strong consensus that the border has to be secured before anything else." Including a path to citizenship.
According to Louisiana Rep. John Fleming, House Speaker John Boehner reassured the conference — as he has done in public and private many times before — that he will not allow an immigration bill to pass without a majority of the majority, a practice referred to as the Hastert Rule.
Fleming said he trusts Boehner when he says any immigration bill will pass with a majority of the majority. But he still worries that the Senate could take that bill up, modify it and then jam the House — putting pressure on them to pass something with a majority of Democrats and only a few Republicans.
"We control the House, we Republicans, and our constituents hold us accountable ... so that is our concern. We want to be sure that something like that doesn't happen," Fleming said. "That whatever passes out of the House has a majority of Republicans that support it."
After the afternoon meeting, House leadership, including Boehner, issued this statement:
"Today House Republicans affirmed that rather than take up the flawed legislation rushed through the Senate, House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system. The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy. But they don't trust a Democratic-controlled Washington, and they're alarmed by the president's ongoing insistence on enacting a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill rather than pursuing a step-by-step, common-sense approach to actually fix the problem. The president has also demonstrated he is willing to unilaterally delay or ignore significant portions of laws he himself has signed, raising concerns among Americans that 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."
Democratic groups have funded advertising campaigns that target Republican House members perceived as persuadable on the immigration issue and those in districts where Latinos represent a growing constituency.
But the pressure has had negligible results.
One of those targeted, Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, has said he would consider a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally by their parents. But he told us late Tuesday that he was "unsure about what to do with the adults."
Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, a Republican in a politically competitive district with a Latino population of 16 percent, also supports the so-called Dream Act piece of immigration overhaul.
Here's what his spokesman Greg Lemon told us this week:
"Congressman Heck believes that we should find a way to give young people who were brought here illegally a chance to make a life for themselves in the only country they have ever known. His concern is making sure those young people are prepared to succeed and provide for their future families."
To Heck, that translates to a requirement of four years in the military, an associate or undergraduate degree, or a vocational certificate.
But on a pathway to citizenship? "His position has always been that he is open to considering proposals that address earned citizenship," Lemon said. "The process must be tough but fair, and not penalize those already waiting in line." And, he said, they must be linked to border security measures that extend beyond the Senate bill's 10-year sunset.
New York Rep. Michael Grimm, whose Staten Island-based district's Latino population now exceeds 15 percent, opposes the Senate bill "because it doesn't contain strong enough enforceable triggers," his spokeswoman, Carol Danko, told us. "Since the House seems likely to bring up its own bill, he will have to see it first before he can make a decision on how he will vote.
That leaves Republicans like freshman Rep. David Valadao, whose California district is 70 percent Latino, a rare GOP advocate of comprehensive immigration reform.
"Our office as a whole is going to remain hopeful on this," said Anna Vetter, Valadao's spokeswoman. "A lot of our members who don't support it either don't understand the issue fully, or aren't directly affected by it."