House Democrats said Thursday they’ll soon launch an official petition drive to try to force the Republican majority to vote on Democrats’ immigration bill — after they try to force a vote on a minimum-wage increase, another top party priority.
Emerging from a day of meetings at their policy retreat in Maryland, Democratic leaders said the minimum wage fight will come first because it’s the most central to their efforts to try to paint Republicans into a corner on the issue of income inequality. But, under fire from immigrant-rights advocates, Democrats said the push on immigration will come soon after that.
The maneuvers to force floor votes, known as “discharge petitions,” are a longstanding way for the minority party in the House to get action on their priorities, even though they don’t control the chamber. If they can get signatures of a majority of the members of Congress, the House leadership has to bring up the legislation.
The point is to force Republicans to take a stand on thorny issues — in this case, both immigration reform and President Obama’s push to raise the national minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10.
Democratic leaders are backing an immigration bill very similar to the version that passed the Senate last year, which would grant citizenship rights to most illegal immigrants, while also rewriting the legal immigration system.
That bill has 192 Democratic sponsors, but just three Republican sponsors, making it questionable whether they will be able to reach the 218 needed to succeed in their petition drive.
Republicans dismissed the discharge effort, saying House Democrats won’t be able to get enough support for force the issue.
“This scheme has zero chance of success — a clear majority in the House understands that the massive Senate-passed bill is deeply flawed. That’s why we will continue to work on step-by-step, common-sense reform,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner.
A group of illegal immigrants plans to protest outside the Democrats’ retreat in Cambridge, Md., on Friday, urging leaders not to use the issue for partisan advantage. Mr. Obama is slated to address Democrats on Friday, and the activists argue he could unilaterally halt deportations — a move they said would also force Republicans to have to negotiate on a bill.
In late January, at their own retreat, Republican leaders appeared to signal they were ready to move ahead on immigration, issuing a list of “principles” for reform. But last week, Mr. Boehner said GOP lawmakers had lost faith that Mr. Obama would enforce any laws they pass, and he said they were shelving the issue for now.
On the minimum wage, Democrats have mounted a major push to try to increase the national standard. Earlier this week, Mr. Obama took the unilateral step of raising the minimum wage for workers at companies that hold federal contracts.
Democratic leaders found themselves on the defensive over choosing to go with the minimum wage petition first, instead of immigration.
One reporter said there were dozens of Republicans who would likely sign onto the immigration petition.
“They’ll get a chance, and they’ll get a chance in the relatively near future,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, countered.
The minority party starts a handful of petition drives every Congress, but they are rarely successful. The last one that would count as successful was on campaign finance reform, more than a decade ago. When Democrats and their Republican allies got close to the number of signatures needed, GOP leaders, who controlled the chamber at the time, relented and agreed to bring the bill up for a debate.
That resulted in passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign legislation, which restricted how money was raised and spent in connection with federal campaigns.
The law has since been picked apart by federal courts that have found much of it unconstitutional.
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