House leaders cast doubt yesterday on the possibility of passing immigration reform legislation this year and said, in an unusual move, that they will hold hearings across the country to gauge voter concern on the topic.
"I'm not putting any timeline on this thing, but I think we need to get this thing done right," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois told reporters yesterday.
Immigration legislation has been stalled for nearly a month over deep opposition by House Republicans to the Senate's proposal, which provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal aliens now in the U.S. The House last year approved a bill to secure the border without dealing with the current illegal alien population or the "guest worker" program President Bush wants.
Mr. Hastert has instructed Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin and other chairmen who oversee immigration-related legislation to hold field hearings to determine exactly what voters want.
"We want to have hearings on this bill," he said. "I've asked the various chairmen to go out and have hearings so we understand what the American people are saying."
Among the sharpest criticisms of the Senate bill are that it grants Social Security benefits to illegals for work they performed here illegally, that it requires illegals to pay just three of five years in back taxes and that it could lead to 100 million new legal immigrants during the next 20 years.
Polls show that voters overwhelmingly want Congress to secure the border and that they oppose granting illegals a path to citizenship.
Asked if he would rule out putting a bill on the House floor that included a path to citizenship, Mr. Hastert said: "I'm not ruling out anything right now. I'm just saying that our number one priority is to secure the border, and right now I haven't heard a lot of pressure to have a path to citizenship."
Mr. Hastert avoided any timetable for getting a bill done this year, but members of Congress in both chambers told The Washington Times last week that they are growing increasingly doubtful that the thorny issue can get addressed before the November elections.
"If this legislation is ready to pass in September, then we'll pass it," he said, "but we're not going to pass it before it's ready."