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House Unlikely To Turn To Immigration Anytime Soon


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Well, here we are about a year before congressional elections - the start of what could be a season of opportunity for the Republican Party. Republicans have an advantage in holding the House. They have a chance to take control of the Senate.

INSKEEP: But as we'll hear in this part of the program, the GOP is struggling after suffering damage in the fight over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling. Republicans face pressure to reach some kind of budget settlement with Democrats that avoids another shutdown and they face another issue that divides their party - changing immigration laws.

GREENE: President Obama is pressing the Republican-controlled House to act on immigration; a bill sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers has already cleared the Senate. But the House has yet to signal what it may do, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The White House put together a sizeable crowd of pro-immigration activists for a campaign-style rally in the East Room. Leading it was President Obama, with Vice President Biden at his side. Rather than create problems, Obama said, let's prove to the American people that Washington can actually solve them. Reforming immigration would be a boon to the economy, and what's more, he added, and it could still be done this year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've got the time to do it. Republicans in the House, including the speaker, have said we should act. So let's not wait. It doesn't get easier to just put it off. Let's do it now, let's not delay.

WELNA: But unlike the December 13th deadline that Congress gave itself for agreeing on a budget, there's no time limit pressing to get immigration done. Still, Chris Van Hollen, who's the top Democrat on the House budget panel, says it would be simple to take up the bipartisan immigration bill that the Senate passed by a wide margin four months ago.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: We have the votes in the House, Republicans and Democrats, together, to immediately pass immigration reform. We could have this bill on the president's desk by tonight if Speaker Boehner would allow a vote.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Praying in foreign language)

WELNA: Earlier this week, just outside House Speaker John Boehner's Capitol Hill office, some 40 people holding hands pray the Rosary in Spanish. A Boehner staffer named Britanny Bramell emerges from behind a closed door.

BRITTANY BRAMELL: I am here to take your concerns and pass them along to the speaker.

WELNA: But Ian Danley, an advocate from Phoenix, tells her this group from Arizona wants to urge the speaker in person to let an immigration bill reach the House floor.

IAN DANLEY: We rode 43 hours on a bus from Phoenix, straight, and these are families and folks, leaders from Arizona. We aren't trying to create a disturbance for you in your office, we'd just like to meet with Speaker Boehner today.

BRAMELL: Well, I certainly appreciate that. Unfortunately, the speaker's schedule is set for the day and he will be unable to meet.

WELNA: Speaking later to reporters, Boehner himself was noncommittal.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I still think immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed, and I'm hopeful.

WELNA: But another House Republican who'd earlier been a strong proponent of revamping immigration says Obama is pushing the issue now to destroy the Republican Party. Idaho's Raul Labrador says after what happened in the shutdown showdown, Republican leaders would be crazy to engage with Obama on immigration.

REP. RAUL LABRADOR: I just don't think that what the president and his my-way-or-the-highway mentality about this and of many other issues, that much is going to be able to be accomplished this year.

WELNA: And the Senate bill, is there any prospect for that coming up in the House?


WELNA: That Senate bill dies at the end of next year if it's not acted on, a year when every seat in the House will be on the ballot. Doing little or nothing on immigration could turn even more Hispanic voters away from Republicans, who badly lost the Latino vote in last year's presidential election. But GOP pollster Whit Ayres doubts that will matter.

WHIT AYRES: Very few House Republicans will expose themselves to any peril because of the way the districts are drawn. Their greatest peril lies in a Republican primary, not a general election.

WELNA: And the sooner the House does act on immigration, the more likely those Republicans who support a broad overhaul would draw primary challengers. Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole says with upcoming budget deadlines, the House already has its plate full.

REP. TOM COLE: You know, immigration is a divisive and difficult issue itself. We're not sure we can chew gum, let alone walk and chew gum. So let's just chew gum for a while.

WELNA: Leaving immigration for next spring or even later. David Welna, NPR news, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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