Wednesday, June 21, 2006

House leaders cast doubt yesterday on the possibility of passing immigration reform legislation this year and said, in an unusual move, that they will hold hearings across the country to gauge voter concern.

“I’m not putting any timeline … but I think we need to get this thing done right,” House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, told reporters yesterday after meeting with the chairmen of all the committees that oversee immigration-related legislation.

Aides in both the House and Senate said yesterday the developments mean immigration legislation is essentially dead for the year. Pushing something through before the November elections would be too politically unpredictable, they said, and there would be no incentive to do it between the election and year’s end.

Asked yesterday if it was realistic to think Congress could still pass immigration legislation before the elections, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said: “Maybe.”

Immigration legislation has been stalled for nearly a month because of deep opposition by House Republicans to the Senate’s proposal, which provides a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. The House last year approved a bill to secure the border without dealing with the current illegal alien population or the “guest-worker” program wanted by President Bush.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who voted for the Senate bill, said yesterday he “strongly supports” Mr. Hastert’s decision to delay legislation for additional hearings.

While the issue of immigration divides Republicans, the position that Democrats are fairly unified behind — granting citizenship rights to illegal aliens — is highly unpopular among voters, polls show.

“We’re ready to go on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, one that deals with security, one that deals with temporary guest-worker program, one, of course, that deals with a pathway to citizenship,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who accused House Republicans of stalling the legislation because they don’t like the Senate bill.

House Republicans went to great efforts yesterday to suggest their differences are not with the Senate, but with Democrats.

Though 17 Republicans supported the Senate’s “amnesty” bill, House Republicans are referring to it as the “Kennedy bill.” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, wrote much of the language in the bill that passed the Senate but the slightly modified compromise version that passed was sponsored by two Republicans, Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Once the Senate “amnesty” bill is securely yoked to Democrats, House Republicans will take the issue on the road in the months leading up to the election.

“This is an issue that is on the minds of the American people,” Mr. Boehner said. “I think that we clearly want to solve this problem but the House bill is very different than the Senate bill.”

But Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, New York Republican, downplayed the impact immigration will have on congressional races.

“It all depends on every district,” he said. “The Number One issue in my district is jobs and taxes.”

The “field hearings” will be held across the country mainly during the August recess.

Among the sharpest criticisms of the Senate bill are that it grants Social Security benefits to illegals for work they performed here illegally, it requires illegals to pay just three of five years in back taxes, and it could lead to 100 million new legal immigrants during the next 20 years. Mr. Boehner also noted that the Senate bill would allow illegals to get in-state tuition at colleges and universities where they illegally reside.

While Mr. Hastert gave no indication yesterday that he would try pressing forward with the issue this year, he declined to rule out the possibility.

“We’re not going to pass it before it’s ready,” he said.

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