House Republicans meet behind closed doors on immigration

House Republicans met Wednesday to discuss immigration reform for the first time in seven years, formally launching what promises to be a months-long review of the contentious issue.

Leaders of the often-fractious GOP conference announced no concrete plans to hold votes on five separate immigration proposals already approved by House committees, but instead agreed to hold similar discussions in the coming weeks. And GOP lawmakers said they were near uniform agreement that the immigration bill approved last month in the Senate -- in part with more than a dozen Republican votes -- is a nonstarter.

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called the Senate approach "totally irreconcilable" with the views of House Republicans, and he cast doubt on whether the two chambers would ever reach agreement on the issue.

"We've passed lots of bills in the House that we send to the Senate and we don't hear back from them," he said.

But Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) was one of several who implored their colleagues to work on the issue.

"No more excuses. It’s time for action," Denham said, according to GOP aides in the room. The California lawmaker is one of several Republican lawmakers facing pressure from Democrats and immigration advocacy organizations to support immigration reform, in part because his district has a sizable immigrant population.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), one of the party's leading voices on the issue, acknowledged that "There are some people who don’t want to get to a solution." But, he added, "I think the vast majority of the conference wants to get something done."

Divisions over how to proceed run deep among House Republicans, with some believing it is critical for Congress to establish ways for roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants to achieve a more permanent legal status. Others, however, would prefer to focus primarily on fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border.

The rifts were evident almost as soon as the meeting in a large basement conference room came to an end.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) emerged to tell reporters that she expected  Republicans would conduct "a thorough, cordial, respectful discussion" of immigration.

But moments later, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), one of several renegade conservatives who regularly buck leadership, used Twitter to say that most of his colleagues agreed with Senate Republicans "and Americans. Trusting Obama w/ border security is like trusting Bill Clinton w/ your daughter."

Others Republicans conveyed their thoughts more dramatically.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told reporters that he quoted lyrics from "America the Beautiful" to his colleagues, specifically the lines, “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

Brooks said he used the lines to tell colleagues that he will strongly oppose any proposal "that rewards or ratifies illegal conduct. Anyone who’s come to our country whose first step on American soil is to thumb their nose at American law and violate our law, we should not reward them with our highest honor, which is citizenship.”

The House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees have approved five bills regarding border security, guest-worker visas and how to punish people who illegally entered the United States or overstayed visas. Republican leaders didn't specify Wednesday when votes on those bills might occur, but some lawmakers suggested the process would begin this month.

Asked whether the House could be debating immigration reform while also considering a host of budgetary and fiscal issues in the coming months -- including a new debate over raising the federal debt ceiling -- Labrador cited President Obama, who has often said that a multi-tasking president can "walk and chew gum at the same time."

"I think the Republicans can walk and chew gum at the same time," Labrador said.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.
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