WASHINGTON — Of the issues deemed most likely to break through congressional sclerosis this year, immigration policy overhaul once topped the list. But now a comprehensive Senate plan that passed with bipartisan support is dead in the House, casting serious doubt on further action on one of the nation’s most vexing issues.
House conservatives have balked, saying the Senate version is too ambitious and too lenient.
Sunday, several Republican and Democratic lawmakers took to talk shows in an effort to revive the issue, expressing hope that the House Republican plan to split the bill into pieces can somehow keep the debate going long enough to bring disparate lawmakers together.
“I don’t think it’s dead,” said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, one of 14 Republicans to back the bill, on ABC’s “This Week.” “I do think that our House members are going to take this as a very serious challenge, and frankly, I’m counting on them.”
Representative Mike Kelly, a Republican of Pennsylvania, promised on CBS’s “Face the Nation’’ that House Republicans would eventually produce “something that makes sense for the American people.”
“If we can’t do that, then shame on us,” Kelly said.
Many Republican leaders have worried that conservatives’ opposition to comprehensive immigration legislation will give the party an “anti-immigrant” reputation, one that could undermine its bid to regain the White House. But to their deep consternation, many House conservatives are resolute in their opposition to the Senate plan.
“Leaders of the party were not elected. We were. And we’re listening to our constituents,” said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, emerging from a closed-door meeting last week, where the GOP caucus aired its differences on the issue.
Many House Republicans object to a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. They oppose greater authority for the president over border security. And they see the immigration bill as too sweeping, in the same category of big-government solution as President Obama’s health care law.
The Senate bill affects nearly every segment of immigration law. It includes an enforcement plan that adds $46 billion for a border security “surge,” boosts the number of work visas, and increases employment verification.
A 13-year path to citizenship is at the legislation’s core — and also at the core of conservatives’ opposition.
Supporters of the overhaul are now grasping at anything to keep the bill from dying, hoping that pleas delivered during a raucous closed-door meeting last week from House leaders to rank-and-file members to at least engage in the issue will rescue it. They argue that doing nothing about the 11 million illegal immigrants amounts to de facto amnesty, leaving an entire class of people to operate in the shadows of American society.
“Rather than me criticizing the House, I just hope they will speak,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who helped write the Senate bill, said in an interview. “That’s all . . . the worst thing for a member of Congress to do is basically just punt.”
Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House’s second-ranked Democrat, was reluctant to dismiss any prospect, agreeing that “Republican leadership is having a hard time figuring out what to do.”
“Democrats are pretty united on a comprehensive bill path to citizenship,” he told reporters Thursday. “But I don’t want to preclude — I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Graham said the issue is crucial for both parties, adding that “just ignoring this problem from a Republican point of view is a nonstarter.”
Several Republican Party leaders have argued that their party will suffer long-term consequences if they are seen as anti-immigrant, as evidenced by Mitt Romney’s dismal showing with Hispanic voters in the 2012 elections.
“As we go into 2016 and try to convince the American people that are electing a Republican president, hopefully, [they] will see that we are trying to deal with immigration in a rational way,” Graham said.
But rank-and-file House Republicans are deeply skeptical. They offered a variety of responses, some of them vague, over how to handle the issue during interviews last week.
The most conservative members continue to say illegal immigrants should be deported without exception because, by coming to America without documentation, they broke the law. Some House Republicans said there should be exceptions for some, including those who arrived as children and had no choice in the matter. Other members shaded the issue differently, saying the government could offer steps to “regularization,” without defining the term, for some who came illegally that falls short of citizenship.
A bipartisan House bill that had been in the works for months has never been released publicly. Instead, the chamber is set to consider four smaller bills, approved at the committee level, that would increase visas for skilled workers, create a system requiring employers to verify workers’ legal status through a government database known as E-Verify, set higher wages for foreign agricultural workers, and give local communities and states greater authority over immigration enforcement.
House leaders are working on a fifth bill that would provide “legal status” to illegal immigrants who were brought to the US by their parents. Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement Friday that he and majority leader Eric Cantor, who is writing the bill with him, believe the measure is part of an effort to “find a way to fairly deal with those who are currently in the country unlawfully.”
His office would not provide further details of the bill, including a more specific definition of who would qualify and what level of legal status they could achieve.
Regardless, it’s far from guaranteed to win approval even in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, under pressure from members, has promised not to introduce any immigration bills that do not have majority Republican support.
That gives far more influence to such members as Representative Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican, who read “America the Beautiful” during last week’s closed-door Republican caucus to dramatize his argument that no illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay.
“Anyone who’s come to our country, whose first step on American soil is to thumb their nose at our law and violate our law, we should not reward them with our highest honor, which is citizenship,” he said afterward. “They need to go back to where they came from, one at a time, just as they came here one at a time.”Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.