In his two terms in the House, Idaho congressman Raul Labrador says he’s been pushing big ideas like immigration and sentencing reform and has become the “go-to” person on immigration issues among House Republicans.
Nothing Labrador has sponsored has become law, but a couple of his measures on other issues – extending grazing leases, easing regulations on geothermal test wells and authorizing community forest management projects on federal land – have passed the House once or even twice. Among the 291 bills he has co-sponsored, the largest number by far were to repeal all or part of the national health care reform law.
“That’s been the issue that has been most pressing in Congress,” Labrador said.
He noted that his community forest project bill and his grazing bill both passed this year.
“If you look at the record, that’s pretty good in the House,” he said. “As you know, not a lot of things are passing. To actually have two bills pass is actually a positive thing.”
Labrador’s Democratic challenger, state Rep. Shirley Ringo of Moscow, doesn’t think Labrador’s record amounts to much, especially considering his background as an immigration lawyer who made immigration reform a top issue when he ran for office.
“One would think he could provide all kinds of leadership, but he’s been there for four years,” she said. “I don’t believe that he has much to show for it.”
Labrador, a tea party favorite who unsuccessfully ran for House majority leader this year, says his progress on immigration has been made behind the scenes in the House GOP.
“I have my idea what the fix should be, but that fix has to be sold to people in the conference,” he said. “And that’s really what I’ve spent the last four years doing, is sort of selling my expertise and my knowledge on the issue so people come to trust us in our congressional office. It’s very difficult as a freshman or a sophomore in Congress to be the go-to guy on a specific issue, so what I’ve been trying to do is build up my reputation, and we have become the go-to office on immigration.”
Labrador favors stepped-up border security along with a modernized guest-worker program to bring in legal foreign workers.
While the Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, Labrador said he believes the changes should be made one piece at a time. So he’s helped push for smaller changes, like a bill to speed up the lengthy green card process for high-tech graduates of U.S. universities. It passed the House, but the Senate never took it up. Labrador believes that’s because Senate leadership was unwilling to even consider a House bill on immigration.
“What happened was politics,” Labrador said. “The Senate decided not to take up the high-tech bill not because they were against it, but because they felt that if they passed the high-tech bill, then that coalition would not be part of the big comprehensive coalition.”
Ringo said people affected by immigration policy are suffering because they “have to wait for political expediency.”
“I think that’s an abysmal performance from someone who should be able to move the needle on this issue,” she said.
Labrador has sponsored 17 bills in his two terms, several of them repeats, brought back in his second term after they didn’t become law. They include recent measures to transfer a north-central Idaho shooting range to Idaho County and ease regulations preventing youngsters from working in mechanized logging operations operated by their families. He’s also sponsored measures targeting the Affordable Care Act and opposing national monument designation without congressional approval, as well as a comprehensive, bipartisan sentencing reform bill.
That bipartisan measure, dubbed the Smarter Sentencing Act, is aimed at relaxing harsh 1980s-era federal drug sentencing laws; it’s been backed by a diverse array of groups ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the NAACP. It would give federal judges more discretion on how they sentence drug offenders who otherwise would be subject to mandatory minimum sentences and allow inmates already serving the harsh sentences to petition for reductions.
Ringo has no quarrel with that measure.
“It’s something that needs to be done, and so I applaud the fact that he’s taken steps in that direction,” she said.
Labrador said the measure is an example of how he can bring the left and the right together.
“I call it jokingly the ‘wing-nut coalition,’ ” he said, “when you have the right wing and the left wing actually working on an issue that can actually, I think, make a huge difference for our nation.”
Labrador sponsored the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act in 2013, banning the federal government from imposing any sanction on people or groups that oppose same-sex marriage, including through taxes, employment, federal grants or benefits. He said the bill was designed to allay fears about religious freedom being limited in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
“I was worried that we were going to start tilting at windmills, start talking about ‘Let’s overturn the Supreme Court,’ and that just was never going to happen,” he said. “So I looked for the practical solution.” The bill hasn’t advanced.
Only three of the bills Labrador has sponsored have been co-sponsored by his fellow Idaho member, 2nd District GOP Rep. Mike Simpson: the youth logging bill, the grazing bill and an unsuccessful 2011 measure aimed at protecting people who kill grizzly bears in self-defense or because they believe others are in danger.
In his first term, none of the bills that Labrador sponsored attracted co-sponsors from across the aisle, but that changed in his second term, when four of the nine he sponsored had Democratic co-sponsors. Those included the youth logging bill, the marriage bill, a new measure to restrict military equipment going to local police agencies and the Smarter Sentencing Act.
“I haven’t changed my politics or policy,” Labrador said. “I think I took the first term as sort of, I was learning how to ride the bike.”
Among the bills he’s co-sponsored, more than three dozen targeted the ACA. About a dozen each dealt with immigration, veterans’ issues, restricting abortion and restricting the Environmental Protection Agency.
“They’re very important issues – they’re topical,” he said.
Labrador said he believes his record in Congress shows “I try to work with people all across the spectrum to get things of consequence done.”
“My main goal is to change the way the Republican Party sees itself and how people see the Republican Party,” he said. “We spend so much time talking about businesses instead of individuals. … So that’s really my goal, is to have the American people and specifically the middle class, and people that maybe feel estranged from the Republican Party, come back to the Republican Party and realize that we can actually better express their values and their dreams.”
Ringo, who has made easing the economic burden on the nation’s middle class a central point of her campaign, takes sharp issue with that. She cites Labrador’s support for the government shutdown, which she called “pretty much a temper tantrum against the Affordable Care Act,” his opposition to spending bills – even when they affect programs on which Idahoans depend – and his opposition to raising the minimum wage.
“Sometimes pragmatism has to kick in and you have to know people back home need this,” she said. “I have been particularly frustrated with the dysfunctional behavior of our Congress over the last couple of years, and I feel strongly that our Congressman Labrador is part of the problem.”
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