Inside the GOP's Immigration 'Principles' Showdown
CAMBRIDGE, Maryland—House leadership began the closed-door immigration meeting Thursday by passing out their immigration "principles" just as the first news stories about what was in them were starting to pop.
But if the public rollout of the document seemed like an announcement, the feeling inside the room was much more tentative. Speaker John Boehner, in particular, surprised many in the audience with his tepid words on behalf of moving forward.
"He seemed timid or reluctant to suggest that this was anything but a discusssion," Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) told Breitbart News. "He even said, he made the statement—which I found surprising -- that he is not commited to moving forward on any legislation. He wasn't trying to sell us on this, I don't think. He was saying the words but it didn't seem to be coming from his heart."
WIth Boehner's brief outline of the principles in hand—as well as a new commitment not to go to conference with the Senate "Gang of Eight" immigration bill—the floodgates opened. Members lined up deep behind the three microphones in the room, prompting leadership to institute a rule that each lawmaker could only speak for one minute.
The members lined up in three camps, according to participants: those who supported bringing immigration legislation to the floor now, those who support the idea of immigration reform but thought the timing is wrong now, and those who are opposed to new laws on the issue in general, thinking the current laws aren't being enforced properly.
"This is a draft document, and it should stay a draft document," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, according to two GOP sources. Price and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling—two heavy hitters on the right—both came out strongly against bringing a bill forward now.
"If we're talking about this issue, we aren't talking about the things Americans want us to talk about," Hensarling said, according to a source.
The most significant push for reform came from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who told members that there's never a perfect time to tackle a thorny issue like immigration. The topic has been debated for decades, he noted.
Ryan's implication was that moving forward now was as good a time as any, but he didn't say so explicitly. Like many of the proponents of action now, he was fairly tentative in his tone, sources say.
The calls against moving forward comprised upwards of 70-80 percent of those who spoke, according to several estimates.
Although the debate was intense, several sources described it as constructive with no ugly moments. That's not to say there weren't any fireworks; Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar was described as particularly "fired up."
Boehner and the rest of the leadership team primarily sat by and listened to the discussion intently, although he did intervene at a key moment. When the issue of the principles' inclusion of "legal status" came up, Boehner argued that it did not—contrary to several speakers—equate to offering citizenship to illegal immigrants in practice.
The two biggest arguments put forward by opponents of moving forward were first, that the timing of considering the bill now would hurt the GOP in 2014 and, secondly, that President Obama can not be trusted to implement any new law that the GOP would help enact.