Moderates Complicate Immigration Strategy for House Leaders

Posted April 30, 2010 at 5:26pm

Moderate Democratic supporters of a hard-line immigration bill are quietly discussing plans to push anew for their proposal — and their approach may include tactics that could complicate matters for party leaders if a comprehensive immigration bill makes it to the House floor.

As a trio of Senate Democrats pressed ahead last week — without GOP support — on a comprehensive immigration framework that combines border security benchmarks with new visa provisions and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, a House proposal that already enjoys broad bipartisan support continued to fly under the radar.

Members of the fairly sizable faction of moderate Democrats who oppose any kind of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants and prefer an enforcement-only approach are preparing to press their case to their leadership if a comprehensive bill gains traction.

Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), one of 36 Democratic co-sponsors of the SAVE Act, a hard-line proposal introduced first in 2007 and again last year by Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), said he has encouraged Shuler to petition the Rules Committee to demand a vote on the bill as an amendment to any comprehensive bill that comes to the floor this year. Should the Rules panel not comply, Taylor said he would want to “pass the word among Members” to mount an insurrection and vote against the rule governing debate on a comprehensive immigration bill.

Shuler’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Taylor said Shuler was receptive to his suggestion. Shuler represents a conservative part of Western North Carolina, a state that by some estimates has seen a three-fold increase in illegal immigration in the past five years.

Another Democratic opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.), also said he and other SAVE Act co-sponsors within the majority party “think there might be a new opportunity” in the coming weeks to press ahead on an enforcement-only bill.

“I definitely think we should bring it up, especially in the context of everyone wanting to have the debate,” Altmire said, adding that since “there’s this new push for immigration on the Senate side,” enforcement-focused Democrats would ramp up their own efforts.

Unlike the proposal Senate Democrats unveiled last week, Shuler’s bill focuses exclusively on enforcement. It aims to crack down on the flow of illegal immigrants over the border, in part by hiring 6,000 new Border Patrol agents. It also would make employer participation in the federal E-Verify program mandatory and boost the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and immigration judges, as well as provide specialized training to local law enforcement officers.

With Democratic leaders committed to a comprehensive approach, SAVE Act advocates would encounter significant resistance. But they do have some leverage, given that leaders likely would need at least some of them to muster the support needed to pass a comprehensive bill.

Top Democrats late last week avoided the question of whether they would consider allowing an enforcement-only vote if that would ease the path to passage of a broader immigration bill this year.

Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said it was premature to discuss whether Democratic leaders would allow a vote on the SAVE Act, given that the House would take up a comprehensive bill only if one passes out of the Senate.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ immigration task force, said he was “very confident” that Pelosi would prevent a vote on a proposal like the SAVE Act.

“They have said that enforcement-only is not the way to go,” Gutierrez said. “I mean, that’s been pretty clear from the Democratic leadership. So my hope would be that they would be consistent.”

Pelosi told reporters Thursday that any legislation the House would consider would include the “shared principles of securing our border, protecting our workers, enforcing our laws and having a path, an eventual path, to legalization.”

She added, “There seems to be a good deal of support for something like that, but the legislation will have to begin in the Senate.”

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders are not seizing upon immigration as an election-year issue to anywhere near the degree they did two years ago and have no immediate plans to make a concerted push for Shuler’s legislation this year, despite the fact that it has 75 GOP co-sponsors.

That’s a dramatically different approach from 2008, when Republicans came close to forcing the legislation to the floor through a discharge petition that won the signatures of 190 House Members, including a number of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors. But since then, the bill has stalled, and GOP lawmakers have not yet shown an interest in pursuing another discharge petition this year.

Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), one of the original co-sponsors of Shuler’s bill, said the measure still has broad support within the Republican Conference, but he was pessimistic it would reach the floor.

“Pelosi is holding it hostage because she refuses to do anything unless it’s part of an amnesty package,” Bilbray said.

Bilbray, who chairs the Immigration Reform Caucus, a largely Republican group that formed around the issue of combating illegal immigration, characterized Shuler’s proposal as “the middle ground” and predicted that if the bill ever made it to the floor for a vote, it would pass with support from every corner of the Congress.

House Republican leaders also do not appear inclined to push for consideration of any immigration-related bill this year.

“There is not a chance that immigration is going to move through the Congress,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday. “Even the president last night admitted that this wasn’t going to happen.”

On Wednesday night, President Barack Obama told reporters that there might not be “an appetite” for a reform bill in 2010.

House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said Republicans were not trying to avoid the immigration issue; they were just more focused on job creation and the economy.

“What we are witnessing is an effort by the administration to change the subject from their failed economic policy and runaway federal spending,” Pence said. “Republicans are more determined to stay focused on creating jobs and controlling spending.”