WASHINGTON — The focus of hotly contested immigration legislation swung Friday from the Senate to the House, where conservative Republicans hold power, there is no bipartisan template to serve as a starting point and the two parties stress widely different priorities.
“It’s a very long and winding road to immigration reform,” said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who said it could be late this year or perhaps early in 2014 before the outcome is known. His own constituents are “very skeptical, mostly opposed,” he said.
Supporters of the Senate’s approach sought to rally support for its promise of citizenship for those who have lived in the United States unlawfully, a key provision alongside steps to reduce future illegal immigration.
“The Republican Party still doesn’t understand the depth…of this movement and just how much the American people want comprehensive immigration reform,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said on Friday. “We need to make sure they come to this understanding.”
But Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said in an interview that any bill that results in citizenship was a nonstarter. He called the approach “patently unfair” to those trying to “do it the legal way.”
Within hours after the Democratic-controlled Senate approved its bill Thursday on a 68-32 vote, President Barack Obama telephoned with congratulations for several members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight who negotiated an early draft of the bill that passed.
Traveling in Africa, he also called House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California from Africa, urging them to pass an immigration bill.
Yet not even a firm timetable has been set.
The House Republican rank and file is scheduled to hold a closed-door meeting on the issue shortly after returning from a July 4 vacation, and Boehner has said previously he hopes legislation on the topic can be passed by the end of the month. Aides also say it is possible the issue wouldn’t come to the floor until the leadership had successfully resurrected a farm bill that was defeated last week.
In contrast to the all-in-one approach favored by the Senate, the House Judiciary Committee has approved a series of single-issue bills in recent days, none including a path to citizenship that Obama and Democrats have set as a top priority.
One, harshly condemned by Democrats, provides for a crackdown on immigrants living in the United States illegally. Another sets up a temporary program for farm workers to come to the United States, but without the opportunity for citizenship the Senate-passed measure includes.
A third, which drew several Democratic votes, requires establishment of a mandatory program within two years for companies to verify the legal status of their workers. The Senate bill sets a four-year phase-in, although supporters of the legislation have also signaled they are agreeable to tighter requirements. A fourth increases the number of visas for highly-skilled workers.
The bill passed by the Senate devotes $46 billion to border security improvements, including calling for a doubling of the border patrol stationed on the U.S.-Mexico border and the completion of 700 miles of fencing. No immigrant currently in the United States illegally could qualify for a permanent resident green card until those border enhancements and others were in place.