Sen. Marco Rubio said Wednesday that he'd be all right with breaking up the immigration bill into smaller pieces, but said the most important part of this month's debate will be how best to improve security so voters believe government is finally serious about controlling the border and weeding out illegal immigrants.
The Florida Republican's comments come as the bill he and seven other senators wrote appears to be sputtering, with a week to go before the Senate begins debating it, amid concerns it doesn't do enough to secure the borders and would produce an unworkable bureaucratic mess as it tries to legalize 11 million illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, House negotiators working on their own bill said they'd struck a final deal — though they lost the support of key Republican Rep. Raul R. Labrador of Idaho, who told reporters he couldn't support the agreement because of how it treated illegal immigrants when it came to health care.
The other members of the newly culled group, though, said they'll finish drafting their bill.
"We found a way to move forward," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat.
On Wednesday, the president of the union that represents U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees, who will be tasked with approving legalization applications, called the Senate bill "fatally flawed"
"If passed, [the bill] would lead to the rubber-stamping of millions of applications for both amnesty and future admissions, putting the public safety and the taxpayer at risk," wrote Kenneth Palinkas, president of the CIS Council, which represents 12,000 adjudications officers and staff.
Mr. Palinkas addressed his letter to Mr. Rubio and the three other Republicans and four Democrats who wrote the immigration bill, striking a deal to grant quick legal status to illegal immigrants but withholding a full path to citizenship until after the Homeland Security Department has instituted visa checks at airports and seaports, has created a national electronic worker verification system and has spent more money on border security.
Mr. Rubio, speaking to reporters, said those criteria will need to be stiffened if a bill is to pass either chamber, and he bristled at criticism from immigrant rights groups who said he is hurting the bill's chances.
"What's stymying efforts in the Senate is not my comments. What's stymying efforts in the Senate is we don't have the votes to pass it," he said. "It's very simple. If people want immigration reform, we're going to have to improve the border sector and the border-security elements of the immigration bill and we're going to have to make people confident that what we're doing is enough."
Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, both Republicans, have each said he will introduce amendments to stiffen border security, laying out the outlines of some of the likely debate.
While the Senate prepares for floor action, the House is still struggling to figure out what the outlines of its own debate will look like.
Even as the House negotiators try to finalize their comprehensive bill, Republican committee chairmen have begun to move immigration legislation in pieces, and that remains the preferred approach of many rank-and-file Republicans.
"All of those things need to be addressed, yes, but they need to be addressed in a separate fashion so that people can work diligently for the solution in those targeted areas, and I think that's the way that the House will proceed," said Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican.
Mr. Price also said he doubts House Republicans are ready to accept a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — something President Obama, immigrant rights advocates and most Democrats in Congress say is a must-have for them to approve any bill.
For his part, Mr. Rubio said he's open to a piecemeal approach, but said in the end it will have to include enough parts to equal the whole of a comprehensive bill.
"This issue can be handled in separate bills, but ultimately it must be handled comprehensively," he said.
Also Wednesday the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that wants to see strict controls on immigration, released a report arguing that the Senate bill would nearly double the number of guest-workers in the country, from nearly 700,000 in 2012 to more than 1.3 million by the time the legislation takes full effect.
Those on both the right and left have said they fear American workers would suffer if businesses were allowed to bring in temporary workers to compete for jobs.
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.
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