Representative Steve King, a 63-year-old Iowa Republican, is restless and irritated, and it shows. He’s here, stewing in a hearing room in the Rayburn building, because he and his friends in the House’s tea-party bloc feel disconnected from the debate on comprehensive immigration reform. “A number of us have sat back and watched with amazement as some of our colleagues have leapt to erroneous conclusions,” King says, sitting alongside five other staunch opponents of legalization efforts. “But we are where we are with the momentum in the Republican party.”
A few blocks away, Senator Marco Rubio and his colleagues on the bipartisan Gang of Eight, who have lately been on the front pages of the national newspapers, are poised to release legislation that will probably include a pathway to legalization for undocumented workers. Rubio’s work on the issue landed him on the cover of Time magazine in February and has stirred talk of a presidential run. Meanwhile, the tea-party Republicans gathered here have received scant coverage, and scorn from liberals on Twitter, for their opposition to the Senate’s plan.
King and his crew are not driving the negotiations, and they increasingly feel like outsiders within their own party. “The meetings of the Gang of Eight and the secret meetings in the House of Representatives — the people who have been standing up for the Constitution and the rule of law haven’t been invited to those meetings,” King tells the assembled group of reporters. The other huddlers — Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Louie Gohmert (Texas), and Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) — nod and grimace. “We’ve got all the rich guys and the elitists talking to each other,” Rohrabacher says. “Unfortunately us regular folks don’t have that kind of coordination.”
A lot has changed in six years. In 2007, when Congress was last trying to pass an immigration bill, GOP critics of that version of “comprehensive reform” dominated the headlines, and their vocal opposition to what was then the Gang of Twelve’s plan scared off many Republicans who might otherwise have supported it. This time around, the anti-legalization warriors wonder why their party suddenly seems to be ignoring their concerns. “We’re seeing the inertia, and we’re concerned about having this wash over us,” King says.
Yet in spite of the eye rolling they generate within the Beltway establishment, these six colorful members (Gohmert, Bachmann, and King are frequent guests on cable news) might effectively stymie the Gang of Eight’s quest for a comprehensive package. King and company are preparing to block whatever comes out of the Senate, and they think they, not Rubio, will be the Republicans who shape the debate, especially on talk radio and within the conservative movement.
Republicans leaders are paying attention. Sources close to House conservatives say that King is working behind the scenes to sour his right-wing colleagues on the Gang of Eight’s plan, and he made calls over the weekend to finalize his strategy with members and conservative activists. Insiders say King is confident that conservatives will come to reject the Gang’s plan once they actually read it and see how it will lead to legalization for people who entered the country illegally, even though it is expected to also include enforcement triggers.
Barletta, a former mayor from Hazelton, Pa., says most House Republicans view the immigration issue from a much more local perspective than do many GOP senators, who, in his view, are trying to nationalize the debate far too much. The illegal-immigration debate isn’t just about politics and reaching new voters, Barletta says, but about obeying the law. When he was a mayor, he introduced an ordinance to prevent the city from working with businesses that hired undocumented workers. Immigrant groups promptly sued the city, and the ordinance was later ruled unconstitutional. But the support his effort gained him among conservatives helped Barletta win a House seat. “Once I saw illegal aliens getting more rights than the average citizen, that’s when I started my crusade,” he says.