Even as the Senate is pushing its massive immigration bill, the House is beginning to move pieces of the puzzle through its committees with a vote Wednesday to force the Obama administration to stiffen border security.
The bill passed the House Homeland Security Committee on a bipartisan voice vote, signaling just how much support there is for securing the border — either independently or as part of a broader immigration deal.
"This is but one component. If you can't get through this hurdle, you really can't get to a broader discussion on immigration," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who sits on the committee. "It is pretty unanimous that you have to address border security. This will put some real metrics to that. Take that out of the hands of the secretary of Homeland Security, and be more objective."
The bill sets out strict metrics for measuring border security, including drug seizures and the number of illegal immigrants apprehended or deterred from crossing — as well as rules on how to estimate how many people are evading capture.
It also sets deadlines for the administration to submit plans to meet those goals — but the legislation does not authorize any money.
The bill reflects a growing frustration on both sides of the aisle that the Homeland Security Department has no definition for success in controlling the border. The department several years ago scrapped the old definition of miles of the border under "operational control," but it has offered no replacement.
That led to a heated hearing earlier this year at which members of both parties told department officials they needed to "get in the game" or else risk being the roadblock to passage of an immigration bill.
Wednesday's bill likely becomes the House's border security offer in any eventual immigration negotiations with the Senate.
Committee Democrats wanted to include $3 billion to get started on better security.
"Unless we put our money where our mouths are, DHS is bound to fall short," said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "At a minimum we should provide the $3 billion in new money that Secretary [Janet A.] Napolitano acknowledges she needs to achieve operational control."
But Republicans said they wanted to get a look at the plan before they dole the money out.
"I don't want to throw money at this department on an ad hoc basis because frankly I don't trust them," said Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican.
Republicans defeated Mr. Thompson's amendment but the committee adopted a host of other changes on bipartisan votes.
The 18-page bill is the first major immigration measure to clear a congressional committee this year, and it underscores the different approaches to the issue.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is working on a massive 867-page bill that would spend more on border security while rewriting the legal immigration system and granting legal status to illegal immigrants. Senators have held two days of committee votes and return to work Thursday.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee will work Thursday on two smaller bills — one that would impose a nationwide electronic worker verification system and another that would create a guest-worker program for agriculture workers.
Mr. McCaul said he believes his border security bill can pass the House and will eventually become part of any final conference negotiation with the Senate, if senators can pass a bill over there.
"I feel very confident we can pass this bill out of the House, and that puts us in play in a conference situation," he said. "I think we're all in agreement that more has to be done, that's why we have this bill."
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