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POLITICS: PennAve

House Republicans don't have a plan for talking about immigration during August recess

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Immigration,House of Representatives,Republican Party,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Congressional Recess

As House Republicans prepare to return to their districts for the August recess, they are bracing themselves for tough questions about immigration reform from their constituents — with little guidance from their conference leaders about how to answer them.

Most Republicans concede that they “should talk about it,” as Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday.

“I think that’s one of the reasons we’re waiting until after the August recess to do some of the major pieces of legislation, because we want to go back home and listen to our constituents,” Labrador said.

But in the House GOP recess planning kit, which is distributed to members to guide their messaging during the recess, the word “immigration” appears only once in more than 30 pages; by contrast, “job” and “jobs” appear a combined 58 times.

Many members of Congress don’t read the kits, but they nicely sum up the conference’s policy priorities — and make clear, by exclusion, which issues haven’t quite been hashed out.

The pockets of inconsistency within the conference on the issue of immigration reform came to the forefront this week amidst criticism of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who said in an interview that most people who immigrated illegally as children were drug mules and have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., publicly refuted King’s remarks.

Still, comments such as King’s will be dredged up as the 2014 mid-term elections near, and some Republicans expect they could be used in races nationwide, as happened with former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s remarks about “legitimate rape” in the 2012 Senate races.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who hails from a relatively moderate district, said his colleagues “ought to say things that are productive” when they get back home.

“I think anytime anyone says anything like that, it hurts the discussion,” Kinzinger said of King’s comments.

In many races, however, immigration might not matter at all — and so, like gun control, House Republicans are hesitant to carry on a lengthy public debate about it.

Even as a new poll this week showed that most Americans would blame congressional Republicans should Congress fail to approve an immigration reform package, many Republicans doubt that immigration reform will be an issue significant enough to move votes in most House races — even if the topic continues to drive discussion.

“By and large, the way Republican seats are distributed, most people don’t have a large Hispanic vote [in their districts], and … most people have pretty conservative districts regardless,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

A recent analysis by Nate Silver of the New York Times supports that premise. “Just 40 of the 232 Republicans in the House come from districts that are more than 20 percent Hispanic, and just 16 from districts that are at least one-third Hispanic,” Silver wrote.

As a result, Cole added, the typical political incentives likely won’t apply to approving immigration reform.

“I think people are just not likely to be pressured,” Cole said. “The president didn’t carry many of the districts that Republicans represent, so his ability to reach over and influence them is pretty limited.”

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Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner