Complicating the legislation’s passage is that it has become something of a political orphan in the House, lacking support from any high-profile lawmaker. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have taken a hands-off approach, suggesting that a public embrace of policy specifics would harm the process.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is moving piecemeal bills dealing with border security and worker visas while opposing citizenship for immigrants here illegally. The bipartisan group of seven House members, led by Gutierrez and three rank-and-file Republicans, has been unable to reach a deal that they could push as a group.
That leaves Ryan, a longtime supporter of immigration legislation dating back to his 2006 support for Gutierrez's bill that included citizenship rights, as the most prominent House backer of a comprehensive deal. His advisers say he is a “bridge builder” on the issue, hoping to reassure both proponents such as Gutierrez and staunch conservatives who have come to worship Ryan’s acumen on deficits.
While some Republicans make the case for political expediency, hoping to lure Latino voters in elections, Ryan sells his argument as an “economic-based immigration system,” one aide said. The idea is that the economy will be better served by bringing the raft of undocumented workers currently serving in low-wage jobs into the legal workforce and setting up the right number of visas for skilled employees in key industries.
“Immigration will help improve that, so that we have the labor we need to get the economic growth that we want, so that America can be a fast-growing economy in the 21st century. Immigration helps us get the labor force that we need so that we can have the kind of growth we want,” Ryan said last month at an event at the National Association of Manufacturers. He added: “If you come here and put your hand over your heart, and you pledge allegiance to the American flag, we want you.”
Ryan’s standing among House conservatives remains as strong as ever.
“What he brings is experience and trust. He’s deeply trusted in our conference,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a junior member of the leadership and one of Ryan’s top acolytes on the Budget Committee.
Ryan’s chairmanship of the Budget Committee ends next year, and no one seems certain what he wants next. Some expect him to pursue a presidential bid, while others view him as a logical successor to Boehner as speaker.
His fundraising schedule is now packed with events benefiting fellow House Republicans, not Lincoln Day dinners in key presidential primary battlegrounds. That leaves many assuming he wants to stay in the House, with the gavel at the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee an increasingly likely prize.