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Immigration Reform Isn't Dead in the House: Here’s Who Can Save It

Immigration Reform Isn't Dead in the House: Here’s Who Can Save It

The conventional wisdom in Washington has it that immigration reform is dead and the Republican Party isn’t far behind.

Press reports focus on the (very real) civil war within the GOP, the latest rants from the die-hards and the crazies, and the various reasons, led chiefly by congressional redistricting and Tea Party pressure, that immigration reform will go down in flames. But considerably less attention is being paid to a handful of key conservatives, members of both the old and new guards in the House, whose recent moves on immigration are giving high-level staffers, lobbyists, and advocates reason to believe that the chances for reform are still alive in this Congress.

Driven by a combination of personal politics, religious beliefs, professional ambitions, and old-fashioned self-interest, these five Republicans are the dominoes at the front of the line for the House GOP, according to immigration watchers. As go these five, so goes the caucus. Call them “the Deciders.”

A major test for the Deciders will be the month of August, when members traditionally head home to their districts and get an earful from constituents about whatever is pending before Congress. To avoid a repeat of the 2009 pitchfork-and-torches sessions that nearly torpedoed health-care reform, House members in the “Gang of Seven” will introduce their comprehensive immigration bill in September, well after House Republicans have offered smaller measures and the heat of the recess has come and gone.

If all goes smoothly in August, immigration advocates believe comprehensive reform still has a fighting chance in the House, but the decisions of these five men will hold the keys to the future of the reform effort.

Paul Ryan

Ryan is best known outside the Beltway as Mitt Romney’s ill-fated, gee-whiz veep choice, but Ryan has quietly stepped into the void  of Republican leadership in the immigration debate to make the case for the issue to the rank-and-file members. Known to harbor higher aspirations than his current perch at the top of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has acted as an emissary between the House “Gang” drafting a comprehensive reform bill and House conservatives, who seem to have reservations about nearly all aspects of it.

People close to the process variously describe Ryan as the “adult in the room” and the “Labrador whisperer” (for his ability to speak the language of House upstarts like Rep. Raul Labrador), and uniformly point to the Wisconsin numbers-cruncher as the biggest surprise in the reform effort. Ryan spoke at a recent GOP caucus meeting to argue that the American economy cannot improve without the work force that immigration reform would provide, and he continues to press the case as an economic issue. Whether he chooses to run for the White House for 2016 or John Boehner’s job sometime before that, Ryan’s behind-the-scenes role is singling him out among his colleagues as a leader with potential to do more.

Raul Labrador

The Puerto Rican-born son of a single mother has played the role of the un-Rubio on immigration reform so far, joining and then bolting the House Gang of Seven over how new immigrants would pay for health care. A top Democratic staffer calls Labrador a “frenemy” to the reform effort because of his fits and starts on the issue, but advocates are holding out hope that the former immigration lawyer will back the effort in the end. In many ways Labrador embodies the tensions of the issue for Republicans, as both a Latino and a Tea Party favorite with a 100 percent rating from the Club for Growth. Labrador’s vote undoubtedly will move a large bloc of conservatives with him, and the high stakes are not lost on the Idaho sophomore. He said on Meet the Press earlier this month, “If we don’t do this right, it could be the death of the Republican Party.”

Trey Gowdy

Like Labrador, Gowdy is a member of the rowdy 110th GOP freshman class that has been giving John Boehner heartburn for the better part of three years. But this former federal prosecutor also has emerged as a central player in immigration reform as the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration. Along with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Gowdy is helming the GOP’s “piecemeal” approach to reform by passing bite-size nuggets of legislation through the Judiciary Committee that a majority of Republicans could get behind on the House floor, including the “SAFE” act to make it a felony for an immigrant to be in the U.S. unlawfully.

But Gowdy is also a Southern Baptist whose church, led by Dr. Richard Land, has vocally advocated for comprehensive immigration reform on behalf of evangelicals this year. Staffers familiar with the South Carolina congressman’s role in House negotiations say that while Gowdy has been “all over the place” on individual elements of the issue, he also has taken a pragmatic, cooperative approach to working on the legislation and “is leaving his options open. He’s not closing any doors.”

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