Speaker John A. Boehner said Tuesday that he won't bring an immigration bill to the chamber floor unless it can win the support of a majority of House Republicans, creating hurdles for those hoping to see Congress legalize illegal immigrants.
His comments further complicated a hazy picture for immigration reform and were made on a day when House Republicans began to advance an enforcement-only bill through a key committee, and when the Congressional Budget Office released its estimate showing the Senate bill would improve the federal budget picture but wouldn't go far in preventing illegal immigration.
Meanwhile, senators voted against building hundreds more of miles of border fencing, saying that requiring that benchmark could end up delaying legalization of illegal immigrants for too long — a move that showed the core of the immigration deal is sticking, but that also exposed backers to charges of hypocrisy on border security.
Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, criticized the Senate's bill as "weak" on security. He is trying to figure out how to handle the thorny issue in his own chamber amid competing political pressures. Acknowledging that his colleagues could oust him as speaker if he makes the wrong move, he said he would bow to their wishes.
"Any immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties' support if we're really serious about making that happen," he told reporters at a morning news conference. "And so I don't see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn't have a majority support of Republicans."
That marks a major roadblock because most House Republicans appear to be opposed to granting legal status to illegal immigrants — particularly when they don't feel the border is secure. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats and President Obama have said quick and full legalization is an absolute requirement for any bill they will accept.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is pushing his chamber to finish a bill within two weeks, said Mr. Boehner may end up having to change his mind about what kind of bill he brings to the House floor.
"No matter what he has said, there's going to be significant national pressure on the House to do something on immigration reform," Mr. Reid said, before adding, "I'm only worried about what's going to happen here."
A week into the Senate's debate on the issue, lawmakers have voted on just five amendments and have easily defeated all of the proposals to stiffen security checks.
On Tuesday, that meant rejecting a Republican proposal to build 700 miles of two-tier fencing along the southwestern border that would have made good on a congressional promise in the Secure Fence Act in 2006.
Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who offered the amendment, said it was a way to build confidence with voters who think the Senate bill will repeat the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty, when millions of illegal immigrants were given citizenship but the government failed to follow through on stiffer security.
"When is our federal government going to keep its promises when it comes to the issue of border security?" he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who was part of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that wrote the Senate bill, said he supports more border fencing and that the bill he wrote calls for spending $1.5 billion on more infrastructure. But he said he had to vote against Mr. Thune's amendment because it wasn't a comprehensive border plan.
"Therefore, I will oppose his amendment and instead continue to work with my Republican colleagues to arrive at a new measure that improves on the significant border security measures already in the bill," he said.
The CBO findings will do little to boost Americans' confidence in the bill. The nonpartisan agency said the bill would halt only about 25 percent of projected future illegal immigration. The CBO said a key problem will be the number of guest workers who are unlikely to go back to their home countries as required.
Still, the CBO had glowing news for the federal budget, saying that increased taxes from legalized immigrants and future workers will decrease deficits by $197 billion over the next 10 years and nearly $900 billion over two decades.
Even as the Senate debated amendments, the House Judiciary Committee was moving ahead with a bill that would impose criminal penalties on illegal immigrants, give state and local police more authority to enforce immigration laws, and push federal authorities to act.
Democrats objected, saying Republicans were repeating the mistakes of 2005 and 2006, when House Republicans passed an enforcement-only bill, sparking mass protests that some analysts said was the beginning of the political wave that struck in the 2012 elections.
"We've tried this before and it has failed us before," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., the ranking Democrat on the committee. "It is so extreme and heinous that this committee can do nothing but reject this bill, consider it a nonstarter, because the bill cannot be fixed."
The enforcement bill is the first in a series of piecemeal bills on which the Judiciary Committee is working. That stands in contrast to the 1,075-page bill the Senate is debating.
But another bipartisan group of lawmakers is working on a broad bill in the House, and Mr. Boehner hasn't decided which approach he will take when it's time to bring a bill to his chamber's floor.
Mr. Boehner said he will gather House Republicans on July 10 to talk about how to proceed. He acknowledged that if he gets this issue wrong, his colleagues could oust him as speaker.
Some Republicans fear Mr. Boehner will push a tough bill through the House but then allow a weaker bill to come back after negotiations with the Senate.
Asked whether he would apply his same majority-of-Republicans rule to any eventual conference report negotiated with the Senate, Mr. Boehner demurred.
"We'll see when we get there," he said.
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