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House GOP members fear betrayal on immigration in conference committee

Former chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi John Lawrence talks about the power of a Speaker to shape legislation in conference committee
Former chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi John Lawrence talks about the power of a Speaker to shape legislation in conference committee
Kitty Felde/ KPCC

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House Republicans meet Wednesday to talk about what sort of immigration bill they could support. Nearly half a dozen tough measures have passed various House Committees.

The Senate's already approved its version of immigration reform. What happens next depends a great deal on House Speaker John Boehner.

House committees are considering legislation that would create guest worker programs for agriculture and visas for high tech industries, require nationwide use of an electronic worker verification system, and allow local police to enforce federal immigration laws. None of these bills include a pathway to citizenship.

Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa - one of the harshest critics of what he calls "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants - said he's "concerned" about what could happen if the House leadership appoints a conference committee. That's when a group of legislators from the House and Senate come together to hash out differences between their bills.

King says that conference committee could produce a version of the Senate immigration bill and sent it to the House floor without amendments for an up or down vote.

"Every Democrat would vote for it. It would only take a couple dozen Republicans" to join them to pass it, he said. "And we could be stuck with a very bad bill on the way to the President."

"The smarter minds will guide us toward resolution," countered Democrat Xavier Becerra, of Los Angeles. He's part of the bipartisan House "Gang of Seven" members working on a comprehensive measure that includes a path to citizenship.

 House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would appoint members to that conference committee.

Becerra said Boehner faces a tough choice.

"Does he wish to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives for his political party, the Republicans," he asked, "or does he wish to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives for the people of the United States of America, who have said very clearly, 'get this done'?" 

Boehner has said time after time that he will not advance any immigration measure that doesn't have a majority of House Republican support. It's unlikely that he will find a majority of House GOP members who will support a path to citizenship.

John Lawrence, who served as chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi when she was speaker, said several major bills have passed the House under Boehner's leadership with a substantial number of Democratic votes, such as Hurricane Sandy funding and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. He said that's because "he has a very large cohort of Republicans who don't want to vote for anything."

But while Boehner can say it's for the good of the country to pass a bill with Democratic support to keep the government open or avoid defaulting on the debt, Lawrence said authorizing members of the conference committee to cut a deal on an immigration bill would be "one of the last of the major steps of the Boehner Speakership."

Republicans who vote for any sort of immigration measure are likely to be "primaried" - targeted by more conservative candidates in next year's midterm primary elections.

Marc Sandelow, professor of political science at the University of California's DC Center, said Boehner will have to weigh the political cost to the national Republican Party of alienating future Latino voters if immigration reform is defeated against the more immediate political risk to individual members. Those members elect the Speaker. 

Boehner  needs to convince a majority of his own members, including those strongly against immigration reform, to pass some semblance of it "or their Party will get crushed even if they don't lose their individual seat," Sandelow said. That's a tough sell "to a politician whose livelihood only depends on whether their constituents reelect them."

Boehner has a third option , according to Lawrence, the former Pelosi staffer. He could simply delay any immigration bill from coming to the floor until after the filing date for Congressional challengers in the spring of next year.