• On Immigration, G.O.P. Starts to Embrace Tea Party

    Representatives Steve King and Michele Bachmann took to Twitter to post photos of themselves reviewing immigration bill language. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

    WASHINGTON — Late last month, as members of Congress were poised to leave for their summer recess, the House Republicans’ top policy experts found themselves in a barren conference room in the Capitol’s basement, negotiating with the party’s most ardent opponents of immigration overhaul.

    As senior members of the Judiciary Committee looked on, the opponents — Representatives Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Steve King of Iowa and Mo Brooks of Alabama — reshaped two bills to address the rush of unaccompanied children trying to enter the country illegally. Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, was there, too, and she and Mr. King later took to Twitter to post photos of themselves approving the final language.

    AUG. 12, 2014
    The New York Times

    For the Obama administration, which is considering carrying out broad immigration policy changes by executive decree, the end of the legislative session was potent evidence that Congress could not be a partner on the pressing, delicate policy decisions to come. A legislative year in which Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio set out to publicly marginalize the more vocal right-wing members of his conference ended with them emboldened, and with new leaders ready to bring the right back into the fold.

    Where are the children going?

    “This was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had in my eight years in Congress,” Mrs. Bachmann said. “We were able to achieve unity across the conference in what is likely to be the most consequential issue of this time: immigration.”

    For party elders pressing for conciliation to attract Hispanic and immigrant votes, that unity has different meaning.

    “When you put Raúl Labrador, Steve King and Michele Bachmann together writing an immigration bill, there’s damage done, no question,” said Carlos Gutierrez, a commerce secretary under President George W. Bush who led the failed war room in 2007 trying to get a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws passed.

    The Republican Party pumped tens of millions of dollars into defeating Tea Party candidates in the midterm primary season, exerted pressure to cut off funding to conservative Tea Party-affiliated political action committees, and even turned to Democrats to pass crucial laws and neutralize conservative rebels. Mr. Boehner said he went along with a government shutdown in October to show his fractious conference the political cost of intransigence.

    Then, with just hours remaining in the summer legislative session, the rebels stormed back — and on the issue where Republican elders believe they have wrought the most political damage.

    That has given the Obama administration new ammunition as it presses toward executive actions that Republicans say would precipitate a constitutional crisis and amount to abuse of presidential power. It also points to a new reality for Republican leaders, who brought in a Southern conservative, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, in the wake of the Tea Party’s stunning defeat of the House majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia.

    “If they continue with this sort of approach, we’re going to have a much more successful conference and a much more successful legislative record,” Mr. Labrador said. “We didn’t go to Congress to be told what we needed to do. We went to Congress because we thought we could contribute.”

    Five months after Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, vowed to crush the Tea Party insurgency, the political balance in the Republican civil war has tipped. In a primary season that once promised to be bloody, only three Republican incumbents were defeated. No Republican senator lost, and no conservative whose words could hurt the party in the fall was nominated.

    But on Capitol Hill, the Tea Party wing continues to drive the party’s agenda. Last winter, as House Republican leaders drafted their “principles” for immigration overhaul, they largely disregarded the opponents of any form of legal status for immigrants in the country illegally, dismissing them as a loud but small minority. When that faction vocally opposed the principles, Mr. Boehner put the effort in cold storage rather than highlight the divisions in his conference — even as he mocked Republicans who feared moving forward with immigration legislation.

    Then, last month, as Mr. Scalise was preparing to assume the No. 3 post of House majority whip, he called Mr. Labrador, who was an immigration lawyer before he was elected in the wave of 2010.

    “He said, ‘I understand you’re an expert; I really need your help,’ ” Mr. Labrador said.

    With Democrats united in opposition and Republicans divided, Republican leaders dropped plans to pass a stripped-down border-control spending bill. But most House Republicans did not want to leave Washington without addressing the crisis at the border. During a boisterous, closed-door meeting, mainstream Republicans vented their anger at immigration hard-liners, accusing them of scuttling the leadership’s bills just because they could.

    In a surprise move, Mr. Boehner turned to the hard-liners he had sidelined.

    “Those of us who believed in border security were, by and large, cast aside,” said Mr. Brooks, the Alabama representative. “Funny how things can change real quickly when the only way you can pass legislation is to amend it our way. I hope House leadership will consider our various opinions to a greater degree than they have in the past.”

    The changes opponents sought were subtle: clearer language showing that the bill was raising the bar on granting asylum hearings to unaccompanied children at the border, and a more explicit bill phasing out Mr. Obama’s executive order granting legal status to some immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, an order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

    Regardless, Mr. Gutierrez said, political damage was done. Complexities of immigration law that slip by most of the American news media remain front and center on Spanish television, where news figures such as Jorge Ramos advocate immigration overhaul positions, he said. And little-known lawmakers like Mr. King and Mr. Brooks are not so obscure among Latinos.

    Just days after helping write the House’s only immigration policy bill of the year, Mr. Brooks made waves again when he spoke of a “war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party” to the conservative radio show host Laura Ingraham. Mr. King was caught on tape grabbing the arm of a young immigrant who grew up in Arizona and was granted legal status by the president’s order. “You’re very good at English, you know what I’m saying?” he told the immigrant, a graduate of Arizona State University.

    Mr. Gutierrez said: “We have destroyed tens of thousands of young lives, people who don’t speak Spanish, who have lived their whole lives here, who want to be productive members of society, and now Steve King is rewriting DACA? I just think that is a real shame.”

    Those involved in the fight say its outcome could be a sign of things to come, in clashes brewing over raising the federal borrowing limit, funding the government beyond Sept. 30, and staving off extinction for the Export-Import Bank, which underwrites private foreign sales and expires at the end of next month.

    “Before now, our leadership was looking at what can pass in the Senate,” Mr. Labrador said. “That’s not my concern. I want the most conservative piece of legislation that can pass the House.”
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