Though President Barack Obama has taken up the cause as his own, a new report from The Hill‘s Russell Berman shows that the current comprehensive immigration reform deliberations began in secret in Congress long before Obama ever took office.
“Leaders in both parties, including [House Speaker John] Boehner, once had high hopes for the group, which formed before Obama took office in 2009,” Berman wrote on Tuesday morning, in the first of a two-part series. “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.”
“[House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul] Ryan [(R-WI)], the popular House GOP budget chief and 2012 vice presidential nominee, worked with members of the group behind the scenes and bolstered it publicly with words of support at critical moments,” Berman added. “The group began under humble auspices in 2008, when Becerra approached Johnson, a deep-red conservative and a colleague on the Ways and Means Committee.”
The group had formed in the House of Representatives after the 2006-2007 push for amnesty failed during former President George W. Bush’s second term. “At its peak, the group included more than 20 members,” Berman wrote. “Its hallmark was secrecy.”
Berman noted that the group of House members, which included Democrats and Republicans, kept their negotiations secret from Obama, the White House and the public. “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,” Berman wrote. “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.”
After Obama pushed through Obamacare, Berman wrote, the “political environment turned toxic” so Democrats in the then-large House amnesty gang “pulled back.”
Berman wrote that after the House turned Republican in the 2010 elections, the bill the group was working on was “shelved.”
“Maybe we should just lay low for a while,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) told Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), both members of the House group since 2008, according to Berman.
So the group did “lay low” and waited for a politically opportune time to push amnesty again. “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,” Berman wrote. “Across the Capitol, [Sen. Chuck] Schumer [(D-NY)] and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) reunited and formed what would be become known as the Gang of Eight.”
Becerra, who had since become the House’s Democratic conference chairman making him the fourth-highest-ranking member in the party, “once again approached Johnson.”
Two Republicans in the original 2008 group, who remained in it until 2013, were Johnson and Rep. John Carter (R-TX). Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) was a Democratic member of the original group. Other than that, Becerra said according to Berman’s report: “Almost all of the members were gone.”
“Whether by retirement or defeat, several of the negotiators had left the House, and each side went searching for replacements,” Berman wrote.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) was a part of the group that formed in 2008, but left “when he saw the discussions moving to the right.” At the urging of the other members of the group, Gutierrez came back. Berman notes Gutierrez only did so “reluctantly, with a demand that the group soften a provision requiring immigrants in the country illegally to appear in a federal courtroom before they could gain probationary legal status.”
Becerra also recruited Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), another Democrat, while Carter and Johnson brought in “conservative firebrand” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL). Diaz-Balart’s brother, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), had been a part of the original 2008 amnesty team.
The House group has since fallen apart, with Labrador having been the first to leave and both Carter and Johnson leaving as well. It is now just a House “Gang of Five,” as all four Democrats–Lofgren, Becerra, Gutierrez and Yarmuth–remain, with just Diaz-Balart on the GOP side, with informal support from Paul Ryan.
Unlike the Senate group, the House group seems to have had a tough relationship with the White House. “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,” Berman wote. Eventually, Berman noted, the Democrats “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.”
While Becerra objected to the concession–a relatively minor one compared to what conservatives have been asking for all year–the other three Democrats agreed. “Neither the White House nor Senate Democrats were happy,” Berman added. “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.”
One Senate Democratic aide told Berman that if that proposal had moved forward in the House it would have undercut the Senate bill as well. “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,” that aide said. “The request wasn’t that the House never move forward, the request was that the House wait. 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.”
“[White House Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough called Gutiérrez and Lofgren to voice the president’s opposition [to that trigger on E-Verify],” Berman wrote. “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.”