The immigration reform debate in the House could boil down to a handful of influential Tea Party conservatives.
Proponents and opponents of creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and other reforms have zeroed in on “peer leaders” in the House GOP. These conservatives include Reps. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), Trey Gowdy (S.C.), Justin Amash (Mich.), Renee Ellmers (N.C.) and Steve Scalise (La.).
Both sides are battling for 117 Republican votes because Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he will only move legislation that has the support of a majority of the 233-member GOP conference.
“American Principles is going after Tea Party conservatives who are influencers. Their votes will influence other Tea Party members and at the end of the day that will make the difference with House Republicans,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
The Latino Partnership is a program of the American Principles Project, which is dedicated to promoting conservative policies based on the nation’s founding principles.
Aguilar said other potential swing conservatives who hold sway in the GOP conference include Reps. Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), who is close to Gowdy, and Steve Pearce (N.M.).
Scalise could emerge as especially important because he chairs the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a large caucus of conservatives. He has been worked with House GOP leaders more than some of his recent predecessors.
“The RSC leadership has gotten more pro-amnesty,” groused on GOP aide.
Polls show Tea Party voters strongly oppose creating a new pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers fall into various camps.
Amash, for example, has a libertarian streak while Pearce represents a district that is 52 percent Hispanic and Ellmers is a Democratic target this year.
“Libertarians are more inclined to an open borders strategy,” said a GOP aide.
Groups that want to block a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal residents and limit the expansion of guest-worker programs also recognize they must win over key Tea Party voices.
“It’s very difficult to change the minds of 180 people or 100 people so you look to see who the peer leaders are in each class and also state delegations,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which supports reduced immigration. “We certainly have anticipated the importance of keeping those kind of people on board.
“Our activists are hitting Ellmers very hard after her comments this week. If any of these type people show signs of giving in to the establishment, we do regard it as very important,” he added.
In a recent op-ed published in the Fayetteville Observer, Ellmers expressed support for letting illegal immigrants obtain legal status and apply for "naturalization."
“We must also acknowledge that these people have lived in our communities for years and are a vital part of many farms and businesses right here in the 2nd District,” she wrote.
Ellmers said she does not support a "pathway to citizenship," but could support granting legal status to immigrants to admit to violating the law, pay a penalty and verify their identities. Once legal, they would have the opportunity to begin the naturalization process, she wrote.
Lobbying within the House GOP conference has picked up ahead of the retreat Republicans will hold this week in Cambridge, Md., where they will debate their plan for immigration reform.
House Republican leaders and key GOP members, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (Va.), are working on a set of principles for immigration reform that will guide the conversation.
They are expected to call for a path to legalization for many of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, along with strengthening the border and interior security, a guest-worker program and an enhanced e-verify system for employers.
They may also back a version of the Dream Act granting citizenship for children brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents.
The GOP document is expected to stop short, however, of endorsing the kind of path to full citizenship desired by Democrats and included in the Senate’s immigration bill that passed last June.
Senior Republicans view the release of the principles as a way to test the conference's support for a more aggressive push on immigration in the first half of the year.
GOP Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Raul Labrador (Idaho), and Darrell Issa (Calif.), among others, are working on bills dealing with legalization that could be added to a package of proposals that have already moved through the Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees.
Those measures deal with a guest-worker program, an enhanced e-verify system, border security and giving more enforcement power to state and local governments.
Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the party's budget chief and a respected voice on policy matters, is deeply involved in the effort as well.
Aides to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who helped lead opposition to immigration legislation in the upper chamber, met Thursday with aides from about 15 conservative House Republican offices. At this stage, Sessions is reaching out to core allies to help arm them for the internal debate.
Sessions is emphasizing the potential impact of legalizing millions of immigrants and expanding work visa programs on the citizen workforce.
“It would be tragic if the Leader's immigration principles were simply a ‘piecemeal’ repackaging of the Senate plan,” he said in a statement.