The odds of passing comprehensive immigration reform before the mid-term elections in November were long at best, up until June 20, when those odds became even greater and prospects of a bill became dimmer. On June 20, House Republicans dealt what may prove to be the decisive blow, announcing a plan to hold hearings across the country this summer on the issue of immigration reform rather than pushing the legislation in a conference committee.
The fact that Republicans in the House chose this option, rather than reconciling both the House and Senate bills in a conference, was not a complete surprise for most. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had hinted at the possibility early in June. In addition, the two sides became so entrenched in their positions, a compromise appeared less and less likely.
Following the announcement by the House, the Senate was quick to follow suit. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., declared that the Senate would also hold hearings on immigration, which began in Philadelphia on July 5.
Holding hearings away from Washington will postpone the conference until fall at the earliest, and could doom any hope of passing a bill during the 109th Congress. This strategic move was clearly a gamble for both chambers, each of which is betting that the process will show that public opinion is on their side and give them ammunition going into conference.
The decision made by House leaders to delay the conference is in defiance of President Bush's efforts to pass comprehensive reform. The president has long been a champion of immigration policy that closely resembles the Senate approach. In addition, Bush has criticized the House bill as an unrealistic approach to addressing the problem of the 11-12 million illegal immigrants currently living and working in the United States.
Democrats have used this opportunity to criticize Republicans, saying that the decision by Hastert and Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to hold hearings rather than forge ahead with the legislation is proof that Republicans want immigration as a campaign issue rather than a legislative solution.
Republicans have also made the most of the opportunity by associating the Senate bill with its Democratic backers even though it passed with bipartisan support. At a news conference on June 22, Hastert ignored the fact that the Senate bill had the support of two top Senate Republicans, Specter and Frist, and a prospective 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain, R-Ariz. Not to mention that the bill very closely followed the president's policy vision for immigration reform.
During the press conference Hastert and his team took the opportunity to lay the product in the laps of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. The group handed out fliers that neatly labeled the measure the "Reid-Kennedy Senate Democrat Immigration Bill." Furthermore, they gave every indication that their plan is to take that message to voters during the hearings in July and August.
Both Democrats and Republicans are pointing the finger at the other by trying to place the blame for the delay on immigration reform. Boehner maintains that because Kennedy wrote key provisions and that two-thirds of the senators who voted for the Senate bill were Democrats, it was appropriate that the bill be labeled the "Reid-Kennedy bill." Democrats have responded to this claim by stating that the GOP House is holding up the legislative process. "House Republicans looking for someone to blame for the delay on immigration reform should look in the mirror," Reid said in a statement.
Democrats maintain that the House held plenty of hearings before passing its bill in December. The focus of the House legislation is border security, workplace enforcement and harsh penalties on employers, such as mason contractors, in addition to making them felons, whether they knowingly or unknowingly employ illegal immigrants.
The Senate-passed measure would allow most illegal immigrants in the United States to remain in the country and earn citizenship. It would create a guest worker program for an additional 200,000 prospective immigrants each year, take a number of steps to secure the border, and make a pilot employee-verification program mandatory for all businesses.
The strategy that some Republicans are using could backfire. The Senate bill is supported by a number of Senate Republicans, as well as the president, who has been very vocal on the issue. If Republicans are perceived to be competing against each other on immigration, rather than working together, it could hurt the party in the November elections.
One fact remains, if the public views the constant bickering over immigration reform as politicians trying to avoid making hard decisions, it could be especially damaging to the GOP because they currently hold all branches of government.
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