WASHINGTON, March 19 -- It’s not that the House Republicans don’t want to pass immigration reform, they say. It’s just that they can’t right now.
If you ask GOP lawmakers, they’ll tell you the time just isn’t right. The midterm elections are fast approaching. They don’t trust President Barack Obama to implement a law as written. The border needs to be secured.
But behind these issues lie massive roadblocks that could prevent reform from happening before 2017. There hasn’t been enough leadership within the party to form a consensus, some say. They’re hoping the midterms will bring a GOP-controlled Senate. There is massive split in the party over the idea of a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
A deal could happen at the beginning of next year, sandwiched between the start of a new Congress and the start of the 2016 presidential race. But even if those who predict reform legislation will be front and center in 2015 are right, it’s not entirely clear if the Republicans will be able to overcome their own obstacles to cut a deal with the Democrats.
"It will be disastrous for the Republican Party,” if immigration reform isn’t passed, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who’s been one for the most forceful leaders in the party on the issue.
But what will it take for House Republicans to move toward immigration reform? It might just be solving a problem that’s haunted them since 2010: figuring out a way to balance a staunch conservative base with difficult demographic changes, all while trying to work with the president they tried and failed to limit to one term.
A balancing act
Since the Tea Party movement kicked off shortly after first Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Republicans have been forced to reconcile -- or at least try to reconcile -- the influx of staunch conservative populism with the moderate party old guard. Doing so has led them to debt ceiling showdowns, peeking over the edge of a fiscal cliff, a government shutdown and plenty of congressional gridlock.
House Republicans say that there are significant differences in opinion between the two factions. However, most agree that something does need to be done.
"Immigration reform needs to occur,” said Republican National Congressional Committee chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., in an interview. “I think most of us agree with that. Not everybody, but it is a federal issue and it needs a federal solution.”
And the party on whole -- from establishment senators to firebrand congressmen -- agrees that tighter border control is a centerpiece of any deal.
“In our view, border security is one of the most important, if not the most important, item,” said McCain in a February interview.
The staunchly conservative Texans Rep. Louie Gohmert and Rep. Jeb Hensarling echoed McCain’s sentiments last week, declaring they didn’t even want to touch immigration reform until the border was secured.
Most House Republicans also realize that the party’s future depends on bringing more Hispanics into on board, and that immigration reform is a key to accomplishing that.
"There's so much we can do to show the Hispanic community that we value them if they value the American value system,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.
"We just cannot turn our back on that constituency or that issue, but at the same time, we can't just open the border and say, 'Come on in.’"
But there’s one aspect of immigration reform too hot for the Republicans to handle: what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. If the two factions of the GOP are within striking distance of a deal on everything else, they are miles apart on potentially granting legal status to those living in the country illegally.
Dan Holler, communications director for the conservative lobbying group Heritage Action for America, said in an interview that the debate over “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants has distorted the discussion of immigration reform.
“There's a certain segment of politicians who think that amnesty is an essential component of any sort of comprehensive immigration reform,” said Holler. “And because they think that, there hasn't been a really clear debate on what actual legal immigration reform looks like," which he said should focus on border security and a smarter visa system.
Obama and congressional Democrats have insisted that a bill must include a pathway to legal status or citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Some Republicans, both moderate and conservative, have come out in favor of a pathway to legal status, and the party’s guiding principles on immigration reform that House Speaker John Boehner released in February included the idea.
However, House Republicans on the whole are afraid of upsetting a base of white, conservative voters before the midterm elections, said political analyst Stu Rothenberg.
"The base tends to be angrier, more confrontational, more distrustful of the establishment,” said Rothenberg.
While there is significant Tea Party pushback against legal status for undocumented immigrants, a 2013 Pew poll found that 61 percent of Republicans support a pathway to legalization. But that might not be enough to move representatives with no stake in immigration reform to bet their re-elections on it, said Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of pro-reform ImmigrationWorks USA.
"Most of them don't have Latinos in their district,” said Jacoby, “but what they do have in their district are Tea Party voters or other strong conservatives who don't think it's the right thing to do.”
Conservative critics also say Boehner hasn’t done enough to rally the conservative caucus around the party’s principles, or even let them be a part of forming them.
“Speaker Boehner is a weak leader,” insisted Alfonso Aguilar, a former George W. Bush administration official and executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
"You cannot develop a strategy from the top down. If you try to build a strategy with your base, you'll come up with something that can actually pass,” he said. “It was clear that the members didn't know what leadership wanted, because he was holding his cards close to his chest."
Kevin Smith, Boehner’s communications director, said in an interview that the party’s principles were “well received” by the House members, and that they simply wanted to wait until after the midterms to act on them.
But Smith cited another problem that many Republican lawmakers have echoed: The GOP just doesn’t trust the president.
The ‘imperial presidency’
After the botched rollout of Obamacare and a State of the Union address in which the president promised to act with or without the support of Congress, Republican senators and congressmen are wary to reach out to Democrats on a deal if they aren’t sure Obama will hold up his end of the bargain.
"If he wants to start obeying the Constitution and following the Constitution, many of us are willing to actually do something,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who is one of the most outspoken conservative proponents of immigration reform. “Until then, I think we're going to have an impasse."
Boehner said in early February that his party doesn’t trust the president, and Smith said that nothing’s happened to change the speaker’s mind since then.
"If the president wants to start to build trust with House Republicans, maybe he can start working with us on some of these smaller issues in good faith,” he said. “That might present an opportunity to work on some of the bigger issues at hand. We haven't seen any progress on that front."
But Aguilar said that while Republicans have found it difficult to trust Obama in the midst of his “imperial presidency,” his record on immigration belies the lack of trust.
“On the issue of immigration, he really has been enforcing the law,” said Aguilar, referencing Obama’s record pace for deportations. “I think that's just an excuse. Where he hasn't been enforcing the law and acting unilaterally has been on Obamacare, delaying the mandates -- other areas, but not immigration."
If Obama reaches out to some of the more conservative House Republicans and works with them on smaller pieces of legislation, the ball could get rolling on a bipartisan deal, Labrador said.
Beyond the philosophical differences about immigration, the political risks and the distrust of Obama, there’s also the fundamental difference in the way each party wants to tackle the issue.
Republican congressional leadership is wary of passing a blockbuster piece of legislation, while Democrats have insisted on taking care of the whole issue in one fell swoop.
"[Boehner] doesn't believe that doing one single comprehensive bill on immigration is the right way to do it,” said Smith. “He believes that it should be done in smaller pieces, whether it’s border security, or visas, or the whole e-Verify issue.”
“On an issue as critical as this, the American people need to be able to understand and have confidence in what the Congress and the president are doing," he continued.
And taking a step-by-step approach might help set up a larger debate. Labrador said that tackling some of the key issues as individual bills rather than rolling them into a comprehensive bill could help Obama earn some trust from House Republicans.
“I do think there are small things we can do right now if the Democrats are willing to do it,” he said. “There are things in the system that we can fix today that will improve the lives of many, many people.”
Moving ahead or falling behind
Like many Republicans in Congress, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in an interview last month that his party should wait until after the midterm elections, when he thinks the GOP has a good chance of taking over the Senate.
“If Congress is going to take up common-sense immigration reform, and I believe we should,” said Cruz, “it makes far more sense to do so next year, so that the house can negotiate with a Senate Republican majority, rather than with [New York Democrat Sen.] Chuck Schumer."
But 2016 isn’t as far off as the GOP thinks, said Jacoby and Aguilar, and the issue needs to be addressed if the Republicans want a shot at the presidency.
"The Republican Party is never going to see the inside of the White House again if they don't take this issue off the table with Latinos and start to appeal to them on the basis of some other policies the Republicans are for,” said Jacoby.
"It's not that immigration is the most important issue for Hispanics,” said Aguilar, “but it's a gateway issue. It's still important. They're not going to listen to your positions on other issues if you don't deal with immigration.”
And Republicans seem to have the support from their base to do it. In a June 2013 Pew/USA Today poll, 70 percent of Republicans surveyed said it's better for the economy if undocumented workers gain legalization, and 69 percent said hard workers should get to stay in the country.
“You want to roll up your sleeves? You want to work hard? You love freedom? You want to learn the English language -- the language that binds us together as a people, the language of opportunity? We want to find a place for you,” said Hensarling.
If it happens at all during Obama’s presidency, an immigration deal would likely take place sometime in the first few months of next year. But with so many hurdles in the way, it’s unclear if Republicans can get their party to the starting line.
"It will come,” said Walden. “It's a federal issue and it needs a federal solution, but I don't schedule the floor. That's up to the Whip and the Speaker."