02/13/2013 05:44 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Nancy Pelosi Backs Different Strategies On Immigration Reform, Gun Policy

WASHINGTON -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday endorsed different procedural tactics to advance two of President Barack Obama's top legislative priorities. While she all but ruled out supporting anything short of a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, she opened the door to the possibility of lawmakers considering gun legislation in a piecemeal fashion.

Stuck in the minority, Pelosi lacks control over what bills come to the House floor. But her imprint will be felt on both immigration and gun legislation, if only because they will almost certainly require Democratic votes for passage. In that light, her embrace of different procedural strategies is a significant predictor of what types of congressional showdowns lay ahead.

In an interview with The Huffington Post in her office on Capitol Hill, Pelosi emphatically ruled out voting on small pieces of immigration reform legislation in hopes of building support for something larger. Any bill, she said, had to include a path to citizenship along with border security enforcement mechanisms. Even the Dream Act -- a bill to provide permanent residency to young undocumented immigrants who met certain education achievement standards or had served in the military -- would be considered insufficient, despite several failed efforts to pass it in previous Congresses.

"I don't think that's what we should settle for now, because what does that do to a Dreamer family?" Pelosi said. "If you're a Dreamer, now you're OK. Now what about your parents who brought you here? You've just outed them, right? Now what's going to happen to them? In my view, they should have a path to citizenship too."

"I think really we get ourselves into a mess if we just don't clearly say: We're going to have comprehensive immigration reform," she said. "We're going to control our borders. That's our sovereign right to do as a country. We're going to protect workers. That means, make sure that there's not exploitation of domestic workers or incoming workers. And family unification has always been really important to us. And, of course, that includes same-sex marriage families -- I don't know how we can get that done now, but it shouldn't be the reason a bill doesn't pass. And then, the path to citizenship. That's who we are as a country."

Pelosi's approach to immigration reform is, by and large, the kind preferred by most Democrats, who argue that without a comprehensive push, Republicans will help pass the border security components while leaving legislation creating a pathway to citizenship untouched. It's a strategy seemingly echoed by the bipartisan group of eight senators who have introduced an immigration framework for the upper chamber to consider.

But it stands in contrast to the approach Pelosi outlined when discussing the prospect of passing gun control policy this year.

Pointing to the four major strands of reform -- universal background checks, a federal trafficking statute, a ban on high-capacity magazines and limits on the sales of certain assault weapons -- Pelosi concluded, "I don’t know that there is any view that they would all be in the same bill."

"I think that, we did that before, you know, way back when in the [1994] crime bill when we had the assault weapon ban," she said. "It saved lives. It lost many members their seats in Congress. And they understand that."

As a means of underscoring the political jitters over a vote on an assault weapons ban, Pelosi pointed to former House Judiciary Committee Chair Jack Brooks (D-Texas), who sponsored the 1994 bill and subsequently lost his seat after 42 years of service. She met with Brooks in October before he died. Gun reform didn't come up. But his loss, and the lessons of the 1994 battle more broadly, have clearly colored the current gun policy debates.

"I don’t know that there has ever been a plan that says, 'we are putting all these in the package together,'" said Pelosi. "I don’t know what the justification is for an assault weapon. What do you need it for, right? I do think that we could do, I think we should do, the high-capacity magazines. We should be able to do that and then use that debate to have the strongest possible background check legislation."

"It’s all a part of the same debate," she said, "but not part of the same bill."

This too appears to be the emerging consensus among Democrats. In the wake of the December mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., several lawmakers warned against pursuing reform in a piecemeal fashion, arguing that it would result in the passage of none of the gun control measures Democrats want and all of those that Republicans find worthwhile.

But the calculus has changed since then. Public opinion polls show overwhelming majorities in support of universal background checks. There is bipartisan backing for that provision already, as well as for instituting a federal trafficking law. The high-capacity magazine ban isn't inconceivable either. Increasingly, the concern among Democrats is that if they attach an assault weapons ban to the bill, they will end up with nothing at all.

One top Senate Democratic aide said the expectation is that the Judiciary Committee will produce a bill with those three components before sending it to the Senate floor. Once there, the full chamber will debate whether an assault weapons ban should be attached. The likelihood is that the ban would fail to get the needed 60 votes.

The president would not object to this strategy. An administration official said that the White House is leaving Congress the responsibility of shepherding the bill. If lawmakers choose to break up the package into individual components, the White House would support that, so long as votes are cast on each of those components.

Amanda Terkel and Ryan Grim contributed reporting.



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