House Republican leaders are lining up to distance themselves from Congressman Steve King's recent remarks decrying young immigrants who arrived here illegally as drug smugglers rather than high-achievers. Speaker John Boehner said King used "hateful language." Majority Leader Eric Cantor called them "inexcusable." And Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House's immigration subcommittee, said that "the number of people that have Steve King's precise ideology with respect to immigration is not a sufficient number to derail anything."
From their reaction (and King's long history of inflammatory comments), you might be tempted to think the Iowa Republican is a fringe voice in the House immigration debate with little influence on his party.
He isn't. In fact, when it comes to the undocumented youth, there's a decent argument that he's the de facto policy leader.
GOP already voted to deport 'Dreamers'
You don't have to take it on faith. Just one month ago, King introduced an amendment to halt a decision by President Obama to defer deportations for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. Immigrant advocacy groups universally condemned the proposal. But far from dismissing King as an irrelevant gadfly on the issue, the House GOP lined up behind him. All but six Republicans voted for the amendment, which passed on a 224-201 vote. Among the "ayes": Cantor and Gowdy.
King's supporters on the amendment included a number of Republicans who have expressed interest in legislation granting legal status to some young undocumented immigrants. Cantor recently announced he was working on a bill called the "KIDS Act" with that goal in mind and the House Judiciary Committee is examining the issue. Many representatives would likely argue they were only voting against Obama's approach when they backed King's amendment and certainly his rhetoric is out of line with most of the caucus.
But here's the thing: there's no House GOP bill yet. There's not an outline. And after one emerges, Speaker Boehner still has to prove he can unite the caucus behind even limited legalization. The last time a bill that would grant legal status to undocumented youth came up for a vote, 2010's DREAM Act, all but eight Republicans voted against it.
Boehner has also had trouble passing major legislation on a wide variety of topics (see "Plan B"), often watching helplessly as conservative members revolt against compromise proposals designed to strengthen the House's hand in negotiations. King had no such problem lining up members behind a proposal effectively calling for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants. Some conservatives are already expressing concerns about passing any major immigration legislation, since they fear House leaders will use it to reach a more moderate deal in conference with the Senate.
It's certainly possible House leaders will sell their caucus on a bill that addresses undocumented youth, maybe even a bill that would legalize the broader unauthorized immigrant population (after all, these kids have parents). Reformers are rooting hard for them to succeed. But until then, the Congressman whipping the caucus on immigration votes isn't Boehner--it's King.