Rep. Jeff Denham has become the first House Republican to sponsor Democratic leaders’ immigration bill in a move Hispanic activists said shows a fracturing of Republican opposition and momentum toward passing a bill this year that would legalize most illegal immigrants.
In an interview that aired Sunday on Univision’s “Al Punto” program, the Spanish-language network’s weekly political talk show, Mr. Denham said he is trying to strike a bipartisan chord and put pressure on Republican leaders to take up a “comprehensive” immigration plan.
Mr. Denham, a California Republican whose district is 41 percent Hispanic, said he expects his party leaders to make good on their promise to have a debate this year.
“I’ve talked to more and more Republicans that don’t look at this as a Republican or Democrat issue, they want to just focus on a solution,” Mr. Denham said. “This is a good solution. This is a bipartisan solution. And the challenges that we had in the Senate bill with the border security, we’ve now fixed in the House, so I’m going to continue to encourage more and more Republicans to come on board.”
His party leaders, though, seem inclined to have a more modest debate.
Speaking last week, both House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said they want to try to pass some legislation before the end of this year, but they rejected taking up a broad bill such as the 1,137-page measure Mr. Denham has now signed up for. The Republican leaders said that would be like passing another version of Obamacare, which they said is the portrait of a government failure.
On Friday, they earned the backing of Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who was one of the key authors of the Senate’s own 1,200-page bill, but who now rejects that broad approach and urged Republican leaders to stick with their plan to tackle immigration piece by piece.
“We have to address that issue in a realistic way,” Mr. Rubio said on CNN’s “New Day” program. “I think it gets easier to address that issue if we deal with some of the other issues first. I think if people have real confidence that the law is being enforced, that we are not going to have this problem again, that there is real border security — I think you buy yourself more space and flexibility in finally dealing with those who are here illegally.”
Mr. Denham’s decision to support the Democratic leaders’ bill is not likely to give the measure any legislative heft in the House, but immigrant-rights advocates said it is an important moment politically.
“Jeff Denham’s announcement is a major crack in the dam that has been blocking reform from passing the House and become law,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group.
The House Democrats’ bill uses the Senate bill, which passed that chamber on a bipartisan 68-32 vote in June, as its basis. It includes the same legalization provisions and interior enforcement rules.
But the bill, which was written by Democratic leaders and sponsored by Rep. Joe Garcia of Florida, rejects the 20,000 new Border Patrol agents and 350 miles of new fencing that were added into the Senate bill in order to win over some of that chamber’s Republicans.
Instead, the Democratic bill pushes the Department of Homeland Security to take the steps it deems necessary to secure the border.
That change was critical. Many House Democrats said the Senate bill was too strict in its demand for border security, so leaders watered down those provisions in order to increase Democratic unity.
As of Friday, 185 Democrats were sponsors of the bill. But no Republicans had been willing to join the bill, until Mr. Denham’s announcement.
Some immigrant-rights groups have panned the Democratic bill as an unrealistic wish-list that has little chance of passage, and they have called on President Obama to get directly involved with House Republicans in trying to negotiate a final deal.
For his part, Mr. Denham bristled at the suggestion by Mr. Obama, repeated by Univision host Jorge Ramos, that House Republicans are the chief roadblock to legalizing illegal immigrants through a broad bill.
“That’s just not true,” Mr. Denham said. “You know, we need the president to show real leadership on this issue, as well as other issues that have really held up our schedule.”