The House might actually vote on an immigration reform bill this year — a narrow one.
Called the ENLIST Act, it is a military DREAM Act for undocumented immigrants. It would allow people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to serve in the military and obtain permanent residency.
The House may bring up ENLIST as a standalone bill in 2014 although it’s by no means certain, senior House Republican aides said. It depends on whether they can work out internal disputes and bring the conference together. There are disagreements on details like how long a person must serve or whether they must engage in combat in order to be eligible.
The original bill, written by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), is co-sponsored by 24 Republicans, including House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and 26 Democrats. The concept is popular and was backed in 2012 by Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
Denham has been lobbying to include it as an amendment to the must-pass defense spending bill, which is pending in the House. But that appears unlikely as Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), a co-sponsor of Denham’s bill, has said it’s the wrong venue for the policy.
Heritage Action, a tea party group, is already whipping lawmakers against the bill on grounds that it grants “amnesty” to people in the country illegally.
“Advancing an amnesty-first agenda on the backs of our brave men and women in the military is deplorable. The ENLIST Act creates radical and perverse incentives that will have a negative impact on our military and our immigration system,” Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham said in a statement Wednesday.
The political benefits for the GOP are obvious: it’d help soften the party’s anti-immigrant image among Hispanics. The GOP brand is weak with this fast-growing demographic and made worse by the fact that the two immigration-related bills the Republican-led House has brought up and passed in the 113th Congress would require President Barack Obama to deport DREAMers.
But passing ENLIST is tricky for several reasons. First, House conservatives fear Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will use the bill as a vehicle to attach broader immigration measures. Second, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), next in line to be Speaker, wants to protect his standing within the conference as he faces heat from conservative activists who are pushing Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) to leapfrog him for the position if Boehner steps down.
Notably, Hensarling signaled opposition to the ENLIST Act last week.
“I don’t see the need for it,” he said on conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s show. “The good news is I don’t see it going anywhere.”