Immigration talks lose Labrador

The Idaho Republican walks away from bipartisan House efforts over health care disagreements.

STATESMAN WASHINGTON BUREAUJune 6, 2013 

The departure of U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, one of Congress' strongest conservative voices in the fight for an overhaul, strikes a blow to the work on finding a solution to the country's immigration problems, and it could jeopardize future legislation.

The other seven members of the group said they have reached an agreement in principle on most of their legislation and will continue working without Labrador.

Labrador acknowledged that "it's not a positive thing" for the group, but he said that when he joined the other representatives, he was told that those here illegally would have to pay for their health care. He said he can't agree with the exceptions House Democrats are proposing, which could leave taxpayers with the bill.

That would mean that as immigrants go through the process to become legal, some could receive benefits under the federal health care law.

"It bothers me that they don't have to pay for their own health care," he said. "If they're going to have the benefit of living in the United States - which is a privilege, it's not a right - they should provide their own health insurance."

After meeting for an hour in a conference room on the first floor of the U.S. Capitol late Wednesday, members walked out looking tired. Some had their ties undone. But one after the other delivered the same positive refrain.

"We have found a way to move forward," said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, as he hurried into an elevator.

Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., incorporated the same theme in their statements.

Labrador was not one of the original members of a group that has been meeting, mostly in secret, for the past four years to come up with a solution that could pass the House of Representatives. Other members include Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California.

Diaz-Balart said he remains "really optimistic" and indicated that the group has agreed on most of the major issues.

"We are moving forward and that is the most important thing," said Gutierrez, one of the team's leaders. "The price of inaction in terms of deportations, exploitation and deaths in the desert is simply too high, so we need to keep moving towards getting the bill finalized, introduced, passed and signed into law."

But health care has been the sticking point for more than two weeks. One congressional Democratic aide said the group finally realized that there was no health care language that would be acceptable to everyone in the room, but members didn't want to stop progress.

By stepping away from the group, Labrador said, he likely will vote against the legislation that his former partners introduce. He said he will instead introduce his own proposal, which he expects to offer in separate parts.

Labrador's departure also could provide an opportunity for other conservatives to oppose the bipartisan measure.

How much of a momentum swing will be created by Labrador's decision is unclear. Some advocates feel that things are moving forward quickly and that his exit will be just a blip. The full Senate could take up its immigration legislation as soon as next week.

Labrador is not such a "powerhouse" that he's going to start a flood of conservatives jumping ship, said David Leopold, general counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He said the question boils down to whether House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., are willing to work with President Barack Obama and the Senate.

Labrador said he will continue to work on a solution - a Republican-led solution. He pledged that there will be a GOP plan that passes the House.

"The Democratic party feels that health insurance is a social responsibility of the nation," Labrador said. "I believe that health insurance is an individual responsibility. That is a real hard philosophy to mesh. I think you're going to see in the end that this might be the issue that might break down immigration reform."

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