Democrats lost the first major immigration fight of the year Wednesday after Republicans — voting in unison in the House Budget Committee — rejected an effort to legalize illegal immigrants as part of the 2015 budget.
Democratic leaders have said repeatedly that a bill would pass if it reaches the House floor, but the committee tally suggests it may not and that Republicans are maintaining some unity on the issue.
Even Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has led Republicans’ outreach to Hispanic voters on immigration, voted against the Democrats’ proposal. He said the time wasn’t ripe and that the version Democrats offered, which closely tracked the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill from last year, was flawed.
“We don’t support the Senate bill. The Senate bill is over 1,000 pages. We don’t like this way of legislating to begin with,” Mr. Ryan said.
Democrats said the vote was likely the only chance Republicans will have to show that they are serious about immigration reform and that voters now will have a specific vote by which to judge the GOP.
“Those who vote yes or no will have their names recorded on this vote,” said Rep. Tony Cardenas, California Democrat, who demanded the vote.
He made a particular appeal to Mr. Ryan, who has been outspoken in promising that Republicans would pass a bill legalizing illegal immigrants.
“You’ve spoken on reform. I ask you to support my amendment,” Mr. Cardenas told him.
But Mr. Ryan and fellow Republicans defeated the effort on a 21-15 party-line vote. Even vulnerable Republican lawmakers voted against the proposal.
Democrats have said a floor vote could garner enough of the 20 or so Republicans needed to pass the bill. Republican leaders have said the votes aren’t there, and the committee action suggests they may be correct.
Immigration has been one of the thorniest issues on Capitol Hill for more than a decade.
President George W. Bush’s repeated efforts to legalize illegal immigrants failed, and they angered many fellow Republicans.
After Hispanics deserted the GOP in the 2012 elections, some Republicans had a change of heart and embraced legalization. That helped push a bill through the Senate on a bipartisan 68-32 vote last year, and spurred House Republican leaders to talk about moving legislation through their chamber.
Action has stalled, though, as Republicans say they no longer trust President Obama to enforce any restrictions they pass.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has fought for years for legalization, took to the House floor Wednesday to warn Republicans that they have about three months to act, or else Mr. Obama will circumvent them and grant tentative legal status to more illegal immigrants, just as he did two years ago for young adults.
Mr. Gutierrez said the choice is between acting now or waiting until after the next presidential election. He said that decision will haunt the GOP.
“The president is going to do it. I saw it in his eyes when I met with him,” the congressman said. “He is heartbroken by the pain deportations cause. Do you think he will sit by and do nothing just because you are doing nothing?”
Democrats said the budget was a logical place to force an immigration debate because the Congressional Budget Office has calculated that Democrats’ legislation could produce nearly $1 trillion in revenue for the government over the next decade — chiefly from higher payroll taxes paid by newly legalized workers and immigrants.
“I wish a majority of this Congress would be moved by their hearts to adopt comprehensive immigration reform,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Texas Democrat. “But whether you’re moved by your heart or your pocketbook, there are real economic gains to be had through comprehensive immigration reform that no objective economist can deny.”
But Mr. Ryan said Republicans won’t pass a broad bill that ties together enforcement, a guest-worker program, and legalization of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. Mr. Ryan said those moves should be made in increments to ensure each part is done right.
He also said the Senate bill places illegal immigrants ahead of those who have been waiting in line legally outside the U.S.
House Democrats’ bill includes most of the same language as the Senate bill, except House Democrats dropped some of the key border security provisions — including a massive boost in technology and Border Patrol agents — that helped win GOP support in the upper chamber.
Mr. Ryan’s vote Wednesday was particularly noteworthy. He has been a longtime advocate of legalization, and party leaders have relied on him for outreach on immigration.
In shooting down Democrats’ plan, he laid out principles for any bill the GOP will accept. He said it must secure the border first, include an effective way of weeding out illegal workers in the interior, and must not be able to be called amnesty.
“We have to do it in a smart way, we have to do it in a way that does not create an amnesty or a moral hazard so that we have the same problem 15 years down the road,” he said. “What we want to get right is lasting immigration reform.”