WASHINGTON – Committee approval of a sweeping Senate immigration overhaul has put pressure on the House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and top leaders have been pushing a bipartisan group of lawmakers to produce their own bill.
House veterans fear that momentum this week in the Senate could leave them behind, all but forcing the lower chamber into considering the Senate bill before their effort has a chance to come to fruition.
On Wednesday, the House group was stalemated as the eight lawmakers faced a self-imposed, end-of-the-week deadline to resolve disagreements over health care provisions in their bill. As talks behind the scenes continued, the House Judiciary Committee began discussing the Senate bill Wednesday, and the opposition to it was apparent.
"The question remains: Are we learning lessons from the past or repeating the same mistakes?" said Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., the committee chairman. "While I commend the Senate for their continuing efforts to tackle the extremely difficult task of reforming our broken system, I must observe that [the Senate bill] repeats many of the mistakes of the past."
The Republican rank and file have been cool to the Senate's approach, which would be the most comprehensive change to immigration law in a generation. At the same time, some influential Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the former vice presidential nominee, have become more outspoken in advocating for a comprehensive bill. Republican leaders hope to improve their standing among Latino and other minority voters.
The legislation approved by a Senate committee this week would provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the United States without legal status, while bolstering borders, launching a new low-skilled guest worker program and requiring employers to verify the legal status of all employees.
Goodlatte has proposed a series of bills that tackle individual elements. His bills include border safety and visas for high-skilled workers.
But the House legislation has steered away from the centerpiece of the Senate bill: the 13-year path to citizenship.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, called the Senate bill "the always is, always was and always will be amnesty act."
One outspoken skeptic of the Senate's immigration overhaul is the head of a federal immigration and customs officers union, who has warned that the sweeping plan is unworkable. Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, said the Senate bill "fails" on public safety. "Enforcement is not a dirty word," said Crane, who has been an immigration officer for a decade. "Enforcement saves lives."
House Republicans have in recent years resisted legalizing those who entered the country illegally or overstayed visas, and many of those attitudes remain dominant.
Ryan has been working quietly to help the bipartisan House group, providing counsel and a conduit to the House's conservative majority.
"The thing that has changed the most is, that there were just as many members of the Republican conference before who were probably for immigration reform; they were just less vocal," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a member of the House group. "And now I think those members are finding a little bit of courage to be a little bit more vocal."
This week's setback comes as the window for producing a bill narrows. At issue in the stalemate is immigrant health care. Those who begin the legalization process will not have access to health insurance exchanges under the new heath care law that will allow uninsured Americans to buy coverage beginning in 2014.
Buying insurance policies on their own would prove costly, some have argued, leaving immigrants to face potentially high health costs that, if left unpaid, could indirectly fall to taxpayers. A compromise proposal ran afoul of Democratic leadership, which wants clarification before signing off.
Republicans worry that Democrats are slow-walking the House effort to give the Senate bill more momentum.