House Democrats say they may break the immigration issue up into a series of smaller bills that would put off the tougher parts and allow others to pass, such as border security, and high-tech and agriculture worker programs that have clear support.
That could buy Democrats more time to work out the tougher aspects of immigration, such as what to do about the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens now here, but it would go against the Senate’s massive catchall approach and contradicts President Bush’s call for a broad bill to pass.
“There is active, serious discussion in that regard,” said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, Florida Democrat, who said Democratic leaders tossed the idea around at a recent meeting. “The idea is out there, and there is listening going on by the leadership in regards to immigration on trying to come up with something that is doable, sensible and plausible to the American people.”
Both Democrats and Republicans in the House say no decisions have been made and both sides are waiting to see what happens in the Senate’s off-again-on-again immigration debate.
In the Senate, Democrats took the first step to revive the debate yesterday, introducing a new bill that compiles all of the Senate’s action over the past few weeks. The move is designed to overcome some of the procedural hurdles opponents are expected to erect.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, says he is committed to getting a “comprehensive” bill done before releasing the Senate for its Fourth of July vacation, and he has the support of top Republican leaders.
In the House, though, Republicans are more uniformly opposed, and many vulnerable freshman Democrats could be hurt by a bill labeled “amnesty.” That leaves Democratic leaders trying to see what they can pass.
“We are looking for ways we can find some levels of comfort within our caucus and there is some sentiment to do something irrespective of what the Senate does, but we are still looking at it,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat and majority whip in the House.
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, is talking with Democrats and Republicans about how to put together what would likely become her party’s chief bill.
House Republicans said they are open to splitting up the issue to make the point that enforcement must come first.
“It’s not going to be a one-shot deal,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and the minority’s chief deputy whip. “Until we cross that threshold, until the perception is met that this government is doing its job, I think we’re going to have a very angry public if we move to try and do anything else.”
Mr. Cantor said the border-security parts of the Senate bill are no more than what Congress already passed before, “so if you’ve got a situation where the border is still porous and you provide no interior enforcement and you provide amnesty, you’re going to be in the same situation 10 years from now.”
The House’s top Republicans on immigration will announce their package of legislation today: two bills focused on enforcement.
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said he has so little faith in enforcement right now that he’s not willing to embrace a broad approach. “It’s more important for me to see the Senate bill is dead than expend my efforts on trying to take a different tack here.”
Other Republicans, though, warned their party needs to present an alternative.
Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, has been working up support for his own approach, which would require illegal aliens to leave the country before being able to get on the path to citizenship.
“It’s imperative the Republican Party be for something,” he said. “What I’ve advocated is the Republican alternative not just be border security and interior enforcement. We’ve done that. I think we have to come up with a solution that deals with 12 million illegal aliens without amnesty.”
Some House members said if the Senate passes its bill, the House is more likely to try to approve a broad bill as well. But if the Senate fails, the House will be free to move on those areas where it can find majority support.
One Democrat, Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, said breaking down the bill could work as a debating tactic, if the end goal is a broad bill combining all the parts.
“You can’t pass, and there is no way to do, a guest-worker program if you just pass border security and you can’t do a guest-worker program without having a pathway to citizenship, so it has to be comprehensive in that way,” he said.