JUNE 19, 2013
Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa) steps up to the microphone surrounded by like-minded lawmakers and "Abolish the IRS" signs. He clears his throat.
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"The longest press conference in the history of the United States Congress," as he later calls it, is about to begin. And on time to boot.
"George Washington! Huzzah! Huzzah! George Washington! Huzzah!" a man in a tricorn hat shouts.
A George Washington impersonator 5 inches too short and 50 pounds too heavy has just upstaged the congressman. Five seconds into a six-hour press-a-thon.
Conventional Beltway wisdom tells me that King is about to unleash some "incendiary rhetoric" on the 18th-century throwbacks. Instead, he calls them "a lawn full of patriots."
"The reason we're here today is because [immigration reform] is moving faster than I'm comfortable with," he says. "If debate is not good enough inside [Congress] then we'll take it outside."
Picnic blankets and lawn chairs bearing the Stars and Stripes dot the east lawn of the United States Capitol building. There are crudely made cardboard signs with slogans like "Amnesty My Ass. Secure the Border."
Rep. Randy Weber (R., Texas) plays to the crowd, slipping "don’t mess with Texas—or our gun rights" into his opening remarks.
He’s also funny. "We finally have a president who listens to all Americans," he says, referencing the NSA. And "if you’re going to burn an American flag, I only ask that you wrap yourself in it first."
But that's not his best line.
"Mr. President: Build up this wall!"
The world’s longest press conference is nearing its 300-person permitted occupancy. The police are worried that King has mistakenly attracted too many Tea Partiers killing time before their noon rally against the IRS.
"I’m happy as I can be," a staffer reassures the officer. "Nobody’s rowdy, nobody’s protesting."
"It is a well behaved crowd," the cop says. He leaves.
He wasn't talking about the press.
National Review’s Katrina Trinko asks if House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) will bring the Gang of 8 bill to the floor without majority support from Republican members.
"The speaker is starting to firm up to our rule of law argument," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas) says, conceding that the bill could still pass without coming to the House floor if Democrats amend it through conference.
"Fire Boehner!" someone shouts.
The crowd’s emotions get the better of it.
Reporters from CNN and the Huffington Post ask tough, reasonable questions and are accosted by the crowd.
"Why don’t you listen to the answers?" a woman wearing a sandwich board hisses at the CNN reporter.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) owes his election to the Tea Party, but his popularity has taken a hit since becoming the Republican face of the Gang of 8. Boos greet every mention of his name. And he’s not the only apostate. Another attendee is wearing a McCain-Palin t-shirt. The Arizona senator’s name is crossed out.
Outgoing congresswoman and former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) arrives just after 11:15 with an entourage of six. The crowd descends, its camera phone shutters nearly drowning out King’s introduction of the Tea Party darling.
"Run for president, Michele!" a man in the sling shouts.
Bachmann ticks off talking points about all the "real people" she sees here today and references her titanium spine. The costs of illegal immigration will be passed down to our children, she says. "Who in this crowd is under the age of 18?" she asks. "Step up here."
A few kids step onto the stage, then a flurry of parents march their children over.
"Get that baby up here," Bachmann says.
Bachmann relieves the mother of an infant in a yellow sundress and asks for her name. Gohmert gets in on the action, hoisting up a four year old in a red dress.
"Say hello to Tara," Bachmann says, as the crowd chants "U-S-A." "I love these children…and despite the fact that I will not be seeking a 5th term…I’m here for a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long time."
The crowd breaks into a rendition of "God Bless America" before marching over to the west lawn of the Capitol to protest the IRS treatment of Tea Party groups.
I run into former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele at the corner of 3rd and Independence. A moderate who has fallen out of favor with the Tea Party, it’s not likely that he’d be welcomed at the world’s longest presser.
He says the Gang of 8 Bill has flaws, but Republicans should acknowledge the inevitable amnesty that’s coming.
"At the end of the day this issue is going to get addressed, it’s going to get through Congress because the American people want this," Steele says. "I want to see the party return its focus to assimilation. Republicans can’t just stick to arguments about the rule of law."
Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.) provides the presser with some anecdotal evidence about the cost of illegal immigration. As the mayor of a small town he discovered firsthand that the influx of low-skilled immigrants can produce "50 percent population growth while revenue stays the same."
Amnesty doesn’t help the unemployed, even if it will help big business find cheap labor.
"The people it hurts the most are the most vulnerable among us," he says. "We are stealing that opportunity [for jobs] away from them."
Glenn Beck arrives on the scene. There are votes going on in Congress, so the non-politicians are needed to keep the presser going.
"Don’t you guys have to go vote?" Beck asks the elected officials standing behind him on the podium.
"We’re with you, baby," Bachmann says.
She and her fellow congressmen leave when Beck finishes his speech about how Democrats "don’t see [immigrants] as people, they see them as votes."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a first-generation American whose family fled Cuba, talks about his amendment to the Gang of 8 bill that will pump up border security and require "100 percent operational control of the border before anyone starts talking about amnesty."
"There’s no greater advocate for legal immigration than I am, but rule of law matters, secure borders matter, the Constitution matters," he says. "This system is anything but humane."
I speak with George Rodriguez, a former Housing and Urban Development staffer who is spending his retirement working with San Antonio’s Tea Party Patriots. He is disgusted that Hispanic Americans have been portrayed by the press as universally supportive of amnesty. His family paid a nickel to immigrate legally to the U.S. five generations ago, and he says amnesty sends the wrong message to those trying to obey the rules.
"Mexican aliens compete for our jobs, displace Americans, and vote illegally, and it’s only gotten worse," Rodriguez says. "We need to stop the racist attitude that all Hispanics are the same … we all have different perspectives."
One of the disadvantages of staging the world’s longest press conference is that it’s impossible to focus on one subject for six hours. Gohmert and King spend the three o'clock hour discussing various Latin phrases inscribed on the Capitol building and Washington Monument, before turning their attention to different Bible verses that have been associated with governance.
King opened the ceremonies with the hope that an amnesty supporter would come out for a "Lincoln-Douglas debate." No one volunteered, so organizers settled on having Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector debate a Gang of 8 senator played by immigration activist Rosemary Jenks.
Jenks tosses Rector softball after softball. It's more high school improv class than Neil Simon.
"It's very easy to snooker members of the House and Senate, senator," Rector says.
"Are you dissing me?" Jenks replies.
The real debate has not gone as well for the GOP. Republicans, ever the fiscal stalwarts, have spent five years arguing about money and debt, while Democrats focused on social morality, about everything from healthcare to taxes to immigration.
Rector breezed through the moral argument earlier in the day, pointing out that even by CBO estimates, amnesty would depress wages for low skilled workers by more than $2,000 per year.
But now, facing a Gang of 8 senator, he's talking about the earned income tax credit—an argument sure to capture the imagination of the American public.
The anti-amnesty movement would be better served by putting Kevin O'Brien at the mic. A soft-spoken New York City carpenter, he's sitting on a grate at the outskirts of the rally. Fifteen years ago he ran a construction shop employing dozens of workers, all native-born Americans and legal immigrants. He placed out "hundreds of bids" but found himself unable to land a contract. After a few frustrating years, he closed up shop and now works independently.
"You can't compete with people who pay their guys $7 an hour," he says, plucking grass from the Capitol lawn and casting it away in frustration. "Manual labor used to feed a family; now it's been decimated because you're forcing wages down as prices are going up."
O'Brien is too shy to tell his story when Michelle Bachmann, fresh from voting, opens the floor to questions from the crowd. But a fellow New Yorker, Brooklyn born and raised, shares his concerns about countering Democratic talking points with humanity instead of economics.
"They use false platitudes and compassion; countries are depopulating themselves and sending their indigent here. This is a question of human rights," he says. "Republicans have never pinned Democrats to the wall pointing out that they're importing slave labor. Why isn't Boehner fighting fire with fire?"
Bachmann ducks the question, slams the Gang of 8’s "hush-hush" process, and says Democrats are trying to "hurry this bill … to passage." And the world's longest press conference draws to a close.