In House, a Bottom-Up Immigration Push

By Paul Kane Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) looks across the Capitol and sees a mess on immigration reform, something that was caused by a senatorial process that shut too many players out of what is hailed as the "grand bargain."

Clyburn, the House majority whip, is concluding a series of "listening sessions" this week with all 233 members of his caucus. The goal is to build a consensus among House Democrats on a comprehensive package of immigration changes before the issue hits the floor, which could happen next month.

"In the Senate, I guess you can kind of do things from on high or you can allow things to trickle down. Over here I believe in bubbling up," Clyburn said in an interview.

He said the listening session approach, crafted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and being carried out by Clyburn and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), was designed as an implicit rejection of how things are often done in the other chamber, where a small number of senators iron out the differences in a bill behind closed doors -- as was the case with the immigration legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is trying to resuscitate that bill and will need 60 votes to resume debate.

There is still some uncertainty about whether Pelosi will bring the contentious immigration debate to the House if the "grand bargain" falls apart in the Senate. "Everything's interrelated," Becerra said. "I don't think we have a set game plan on how we proceed."

Republicans note that the immigration overhaul probably would pose the most difficult challenge yet to Pelosi and Clyburn's whip operation. Leaders such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) have publicly suggested that more than 50 Democrats might oppose a plan similar to the one being considered by the Senate, requiring more than a third of Republicans to support a bill drafted by Democrats. "Before anyone can start talking about reaching across the aisle, Democrats have to have their own ducks in a row," said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio).

To placate concerns in their diverse caucus, Clyburn and Becerra are holding six meetings with members of Congress from different regions, give-and-take sessions slated to last at least 90 minutes. Their first meeting, last Wednesday, included the huge collection of California Democrats as well as representatives from Hawaii and delegates from Pacific Island commonwealths, who at one point delved into a lengthy discussion of labor practices on the island of Micronesia.

Becerra acknowledged that he and Clyburn are learning not just from the Senate's handling of immigration but also from their own failings earlier this year on the Iraq supplemental spending bill and a South American trade deal. In those instances, he said, the leadership drove the process and presented plans to rank-and-file members after the deals were pronounced, infuriating some lawmakers.

Clyburn called those rookie mistakes in the early days of the new majority. "We were all dancing around trying to figure out who I can best dance with, who I can keep rhythm with," he said.

If they are successful, Clyburn and Becerra will pass off the heavy lifting of drafting immigration legislation to the Judiciary Committee, which could then send a bill to the House floor late next month before Congress departs for its month-long August recess. The pair hopes to turn the listening sessions into a regular occurrence for legislative hurdles down the line, including on energy and health-care bills.

"It's my job not just to count votes but to create a climate within which people will feel they have got a stake in the outcome," Clyburn said. "It is very, very important for people to buy into the process."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company