WASHINGTON — White House officials believe that House Speaker John Boehner wants to pass a major immigration rewrite, but a former top Republican legislator says he could lose his speakership by trying to push a bill past opposition from his GOP caucus.
“We hear from a number of people talking to them … more directly and way more more bluntly [than us], who are telling us there are positive signs that Speaker Boehner and the Republican caucus do want to find a solution,” said Felicia Escobar, the senior policy adviser on immigration for President Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Council.
“We believe there are a number of pieces of legislation they want to act on in small bite-sized pieces … before they make a move on the House floor,” she said at a Sept. 25 meeting on immigration policy in Georgetown University. The small bills would cover younger illegals, immigrant workers or guest workers.
The White House doesn’t object to a piecemeal approach if that helps Senate and House leaders hold a joint conference to draft a big comprehensive rewrite of the law, she suggested.
Piecemeal bills are “OK if we can get to a place and sit down and negotiate a final product,” she said.
“We’re hopeful — [but] this is a long fight [and] we have 15 months until this Congress leaves” in December 2014, she said.
Boehner could push a major rewrite through the House using Democrats to get a majority, but would be “the end of his speakership,” said Tom Davis, a former GOP legislator from Northern Virginia.
Currently, the chance of a bill being passed “is 50/50,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a senior Democratic legislator in the House. Van Hollen and Davis both joined Escobar at the Georgetown conference.
Van Hollen argued that a major rewrite would help the GOP, despite the eventual influx of additional Democratic-leaning voters.
“On balance, it will be harmful to the Republican Party — at least in the near term — if they are seen as blocking” a bill, Van Hollen insisted.
However, polls backed by reduced immigration groups show public opposition to increased immigration, and opposition — including among Latinos — to continued illegal immigration.
The Senate passed a bill in July that would triple immigration over over the next 10 years, to add 33 million legal immigrants. The bill would add one new immigrant for every two Americans that turns 18, despite the stalled economy that has left roughly 20 million Americans unemployed or underemployed.
In July and August, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the Senate bill would cut illegal immigration by only about 60 percent, and would shift more of the nation’s income from wage earners to investors and property owners.
Davis also backed passage of a major rewrite, but warned that GOP legislators are getting pulled and pushed in different directions.
Republicans “got hammered in the last  election, not just by Hispanic voters, by Asian voters and ethnic voters … [because they] did not look like a welcoming party,” he said.
Opponents of the increased immigration say a reduced inflow will boost wages and prompt more lower-income voters — including Latinos and Asians — to identify as mainstream Americans and to cast their votes for the GOP.
However, GOP legislators “aren’t real eager to make [illegals and new immigrants] citizens and get them voting right away,” he said. “You never hear that in the public discussions, but you hear it in the [House] cloakroom all the time,” he added.
Also, they’re under pressure from the media, he said.
“Your media organs on the right and left are defining this to [Republican and Democratic] members,” he complained.
The leadership’s likely solution will be some measure that provides legal status to the illegals, without providing them with a new or quick way to get citizenship, Davis said. “I think that’s the thought process. … I think that’s going to be the Republican approach in the House,” he said.
Once a small bill is passed, Boehner can work with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to create a joint House-Senate conference where a final comprehensive deal can drafted and approved, Davis said.
“The leadership clearly wants to get something done,” Davis said. If the leadership passes a small bill by the end of the year, he said, and “get[s] it to conference, I think we’ve got a shot of working this out.”