WASHINGTON – Depending on whom you ask, Rep. Bob Goodlatte is either trying to stand in the way of landmark immigration legislation or he illustrates the new face of the GOP trying to find common ground on a contentious issue.
Either way, the soft-spoken collector of elephant figurines and signed baseballs is asserting his pivotal role in the immigration debate as it moves into a critical phase on Capitol Hill.
Goodlatte, a conservative Virginian, took over as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in January, with jurisdiction over both immigration and gun control for House Republicans. He alarmed some immigration advocates last week by saying his panel will tackle the issue piece by piece, advancing a series of narrowly crafted measures rather than a single sweeping bill like the one pending in the Senate and endorsed by President Barack Obama.
That broader legislation, crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators, is headed for votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee starting next week.
Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change, called Goodlatte's move "a desperate attempt to delay and disrupt overwhelming momentum" behind legislation to provide legal status and eventual citizenship to millions of foreigners now in the U.S. illegally.
A prominent liberal who's worked with Goodlatte disagreed.
It "confirms what I have been saying publicly and privately about the new tone and new interest among Republicans," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. "They want to solve the immigration policy issue and not just exploit it for partisan politics."
Goodlatte's approach is nothing new for him. For two decades in the House, he's plotted a steady, deliberate course on issues from agriculture to Internet privacy. He looks for consensus where possible, but without abandoning his conservative ideology or departing too much from the GOP party line, people who know him say.
The difference now is that instead of laboring largely behind the scenes, Goodlatte heads a committee with jurisdiction over key pieces of Obama's ambitious second-term agenda, most prominently immigration. He says he's eager to advance the matter, convinced that his piece-by-piece approach is the best way to get the issue moving in the House but not declaring the method will prevail at the end of the day.
"This process can be long, but it allows every representative and senator to have their constituents' voices heard," Goodlatte said. "And by taking a fine-tooth comb through each of the individual issues within the larger immigration debate, it will help us get a better bill that will benefit Americans and provide a workable immigration system."
In many ways Goodlatte, 60, has been preparing his entire career for his new role, including a first job out of law school as district staff director for an earlier Judiciary Committee member, Caldwell Butler, who served during the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. A Massachusetts native who moved to Virginia for law school and stayed – but remains a devoted Red Sox fan – Goodlatte, who lives in Roanoke, also worked as an immigration lawyer helping clients navigate the byzantine steps involved in bringing workers legally to the U.S.
Goodlatte, who wears thin-rimmed glasses and, sometimes, a brown suit with a tie adorned with American flags, is almost universally described as approachable and willing to listen to opposing views. In addition to collecting baseballs and elephant statuettes that crowd the shelves of his office, he's a history buff who has traveled to the homes and birthplaces of almost every U.S. president and grows most animated when rattling off obscure facts about them.
Goodlatte's most high-profile role in Congress to date came during last session's heated debate over Internet piracy. As head of the his committee's intellectual property subcommittee, he helped shepherd the Stop Online Piracy Act, which ignited a firestorm of opposition from critics claiming it would result in censorship and stifle innovation.
Congress abandoned the bill in an embarrassing retreat, with Goodlatte and other backers derided as Luddites with no understanding of the Internet. Goodlatte says now that the debate never played out as he would have preferred.
"I worked on that for a long time and was working in a different direction, and then a decision was made to go a different direction, and it was a bill introduced by the chairman of the committee, not me," he said.
That acknowledgement may point to limits to what Goodlatte might do on immigration, or any other issue. He's not seen as likely to bolt from what GOP leaders decide. "He's not a rogue chairman," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a senior Judiciary Committee member.
Indeed Goodlatte is not going to have the final word on how any immigration overhaul moves forward in the House. That will fall to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who could end up using an individual bill passed by Goodlatte's committee as the vehicle for negotiating a compromise with the Senate on whatever more sweeping legislation it passes. A bipartisan group of House members operating separately from Goodlatte also is working on wide-ranging immigration overhaul legislation, though it's unclear when those lawmakers will conclude a final deal and release their bill.
Despite his preference for a step-by-step approach that some activists fear could drag out immigration overhaul until it comes to nothing, Goodlatte sounds decidedly open to compromise on the trickiest policy issue for Republicans in the debate – how to deal with the estimated 11 million immigrants already here illegally. He envisions a legal status short of citizenship for them, and from there the potential to make use of the existing legal avenues to naturalization, whether through work or family connections.
And he said he sees potential for overlap between his approach and the more aggressive citizenship path sought by Obama, most Democrats and some Republicans, including John McCain and Marco Rubio in the Senate.
"I think there's a lot of discussions going on about this both on Capitol Hill and by different groups outside of the Congress that leads me to believe that it's possible to find common ground," says Goodlatte.
Unlike some on the right, Goodlatte says it's important to compromise where necessary in order to advance legislative goals. That approach has earned him some local opposition from the Roanoke Tea Party, which has produced Wanted! posters featuring his photo. At the same time Goodlatte says the Republican Party would be best served by returning to its core conservative beliefs and communicating them clearly, rather than trying to change to appeal to new groups of voters.
"People can be misled and stampeded," Goodlatte says, "and that's a lesson that the Congress needs to learn about the legislative process and communicating with people."
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo contributed to this report.