Tuesday, March 11, 2008

House Republican leaders will introduce a petition drive today to force Democrats to debate immigration this year, using a Democrat-sponsored bill to box them into taking a stand on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Republican leaders reached the decision yesterday evening to initiate a “discharge petition,” a parliamentary move minority parties can use to force issues onto the House floor over objections of the majority. The last successful use was on campaign finance in 2002.

But Republicans’ move also puts Sen. John McCain, their party’s presumed presidential nominee, in a tough spot. He has consistently opposed enhanced security efforts that weren’t also tied to granting citizenship rights to illegal immigrants, and the effort could highlight a deep rift among Republicans.

Republicans are using a bill sponsored by a conservative Democrat, Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, to try to force the issue. The bill would boost the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents and require businesses to check employees’ Social Security numbers against a federal database, known as E-Verify. The system is currently voluntary.

“The Shuler discharge petition will be filed tomorrow,” a House Republican leadership aide said after the leaders met yesterday. Another aide said the petition will be sponsored by an unspecified Republican in a swing district, to provide a November boost.

Republicans must collect 218 signatures, or a majority of House members, to force the bill onto the floor over the objection of Democratic leaders.

Mr. McCain said he “gets it” that voters want security enhanced before they will accept his plan for a legalization program that would grant citizenship rights to millions of illegal immigrants. But he has yet to take a stand on any specific proposals, and his campaign has gone silent on the immigration issue in recent weeks. He also voted in the 1990s against creating the Basic Pilot Program, the system that has morphed into E-Verify.

A campaign spokesman didn’t return repeated messages left over the past five days regarding the discharge petition. But a spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said the move is not a surprise to Mr. McCain.

“At this stage of the game where we have our Republican nominee, we do have conversations with their campaign to make sure we understand what each other is doing,” spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said. “I can confirm there was a brief conversation just on the subject of immigration.”

One House aide who has tracked the issue said the McCain campaign told Republicans, “We understand why you’re doing it. We don’t necessarily like it, but it gives us no heartburn.”

Rank-and-file Republicans for months have begged their leadership to take the step.

“I’m committed to doing what it takes to secure the borders. I think the only way to get the leadership’s attention is to force the petition,” said Rep. Tom Feeney, Florida Republican. Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, California Republican, called the Shuler bill the best bipartisan option and a “chance to get something done this year” on immigration.

Republican leaders resisted the petition for months, fearing it could offer political cover to conservative Democrats who signed it, but now see a discharge petition as a way to force those Democrats to take a stand on the bill.

Republican aides said they expect all but a dozen or so of their members to sign the petition, and expect a half-dozen Democrats to sign as well. The Shuler bill itself has 141 co-sponsors, including 48 Democrats. Mr. Shuler has said he would sign the discharge petition, though he still would prefer to have his own party leaders introduce the bill through the regular process.

Democrats are struggling to devise their own plans to have an immigration debate and to counter the discharge petition. Hispanic Caucus members want a bill that includes at least temporary legal status for illegal immigrants, while a bipartisan group wants to expand use of temporary foreign workers.

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