At 1,075 pages long, it’s not the biggest bill to come through in recent years — that honor still belongs to the health care law — but the immigration legislation pending in the Senate is challenging the ability of voters to get their brains around its complexity.
Touching on everything from border security to welfare programs to free trade, the massive bill is dominating legislative action this month on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are intent on pushing it through before July 4 and Republicans are trying to debate whether to go along.
One group has weighed the printed bill and said it comes to 24 pounds. That doesn’t include the 448 pages of amendments that have been filed to try to change the measure.
The bill’s authors say the breadth of the bill is critical and that all parts must be considered together in order to keep a coalition in place. That means tying border security, stricter workplace enforcement, a rewrite of the legal-immigration system and a program to legalize 11 million illegal immigrants all into the same bill.
The House, though, is rebelling.
Late last week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, announced that he would begin taking up pieces of the immigration puzzle: a 53-page bill to create a guest-worker program for agriculture and a 174-page bill to bolster interior immigration enforcement.
COVERAGE: Immigration Reform
“For far too long, the standard operating procedure in Washington has been to rush large pieces of legislation through Congress with little opportunity for elected officials and the American people to scrutinize and understand them,” said Mr. Goodlatte. “Immigration reform is too important and complex to not examine each piece in detail.”
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has taken the lead on pushing for legalization, said Republicans’ enforcement-only legislation is reversing what had been a promising outreach.
“We started so well. January, February, March, April, May, part of June — let’s finish it, let’s not demonize, let’s not pick winners and losers,” said Mr. Gutierrez, pointing to the need to find a majority in the House to get any bill passed. “It takes 218 votes. So what are we going to do, have this fight again?”
House Republican leaders eventually will have to decide what legislation they put on their chamber floor, and they still could opt for a broad bill.
The choice of big or small is likely to dominate immigration conversations in the upcoming months.
Last week, members of Californians for Population Stabilization walked through the Senate office buildings distributing fliers with eyeglasses attached, which they said senators should use to read the bill.
The group specifically targeted Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who was one of eight senators who wrote the legislation and has taken the lead in trying to sell the measure to conservatives.
“We hope Sen. Rubio is not being misled by his staff. We hope he will read the bill with open and clear eyes so he will change his position,” said Timothy Conway, one of those who volunteered for the group. “We supplied eyeglasses to 67 Senate offices yesterday and asked them to pass along their pair to Sen. Rubio. Maybe he will open his eyes.”
Californians for Population Stabilization is the group that weighed the Senate bill and said it came in at 24 pounds.
Mr. Rubio has been vocal about changing the legislation in order to win the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate without a filibuster. In fact, he has signaled that he might not vote for the bill as it stands.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” program Sunday, Mr. Rubio was asked whether he would vote for it and called it “an excellent starting point.”
“I think 95, 96 percent of the bill is in perfect shape and ready to go. But there are elements that need to be improved. This is how the legislative process is supposed to work,” he said.
So far, that legislative process has been slow.
The Senate officially turned to the bill Tuesday, and lawmakers began to file amendments. As of Thursday, when the Senate wrapped up business and went home for the week, 107 amendments had been submitted. Just one, by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, received a floor vote.
Mr. Grassley wanted to restructure the bill so that the borders are secure before any illegal immigrants are legalized. As written, the bill gives illegal immigrants almost immediate status, though a full pathway to citizenship is years in the future.
Senators rejected Mr. Grassley’s amendment on a 57-43 vote. That signaled the core of the immigration deal struck by Mr. Rubio and his seven fellow bill authors is intact, though it is not attracting tremendous support within the Republican Party.
Among the more than 400 pages of other amendments are proposals to build hundreds of miles of double-tier fencing on the border, to limit the number of guest workers allowed into the country, to promote English as the official language, to have illegal immigrants admit they are in the U.S. in violation of the law, and to make businesses certify that they aren’t replacing Americans with foreign workers.
One major fight looming is another border security amendment from Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. The 134-page measure would allow illegal immigrants to get legal status, but would delay their chance at citizenship until strict border security metrics are met.
As written, the bill requires the government to spend billions of dollars but doesn’t tie legalization to results on the border. The bill does tie legalization to certain interior enforcement measures.
Top Democrats have called Mr. Cornyn’s amendment a “poison pill” that would scuttle the bill, but Mr. Rubio and fellow Republican authors of the bill reject that notion and say they would like to find a way to incorporate some of Mr. Cornyn’s ideas.