House Stalls Immigration Reform; Compromise Bill Not Likely Before November Elections

Surprise move brings debate to U.S. voters, derails Bush plan.

Remember the millions who rallied across the country? The endless back-and-forth over the size of a border fence? The competing plans that would either make illegal immigrants felons or provide a path to citizenship?

After months of wrangling and shouting in the streets (see "Thousands Take To The Streets For 'A Day Without Immigrants' ") — and in both houses of Congress — lawmakers finally seemed poised to sit down and hammer out a compromise proposal that would give President Bush one of his most prized legislative goals: an immigration-reform bill

Well, someone forgot to tell the Republicans in the House of Representatives about that plan.

On Tuesday, Republicans announced a proposal to take the issue directly to voters by hosting a series of hearings across the U.S. this summer, a ploy that will likely delay any action on immigration reform until after the upcoming mid-term elections in November, and perhaps until next year.

Last December, the House passed an immigration reform bill that was more law-and-order focused than the competing Senate one, which was passed in May — including the aforementioned felony provision and a call for hundreds more miles of border fencing than the Senate plan (see "Senate Passes Sweeping Immigration-Reform Package").

The details of the July/August immigration road show are still being worked out, but New York Representative Peter King said leaders plan to take them to "the places where we can get the best input," according to a Reuters report.

The hearings are expected to look at the Senate bill and gauge public opinion on the issue of immigration. But it was also clear that House Republicans hope to use the meetings to try to expose what they see as the weak points of the Senate bill and stoke public opposition to that approach — which would implement a guest-worker program that could lead to legal residency — according to The New York Times.

Democrats in the Senate said the unusual call for hearings on already-passed legislation is a blatant delay tactic meant to push compromise negotiations back until after the November congressional elections. "It is now becoming clear congressional Republicans are doing their best to make this a major issue in the campaign," said Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois.

House Majority leader John Boehner disagreed, saying, "This is an issue that is on the minds of the American people," Reuters reported. "The House bill is very different than the Senate bill, and I think we want to have a clear understanding of what is in that bill."

"It's obviously a delay tactic and it's a smart one, because it makes it look like they're doing something," said Douglas Rivlin, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based immigrant advocacy organization the National Immigration Forum. "The president and members of both houses would rather see a pragmatic, but difficult to explain, policy put forward that conforms more closely with where the American people are as opposed to an ideologically driven policy that has no chance of working. They're probably just trying to run out the clock and let it get kicked to the next Congress."

Despite how grim things look, Rivlin told MTV News that he maintains hope that a compromise could be reached, even though it looks like the "gears of politics are prevailing."

Unlike the House bill — which sparked massive protests across the country this spring — the Senate bill combined border-security measures with a guest-worker program and language that would give the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States a chance to earn citizenship. President Bush backed the Senate reform package, which many Republicans in the House decried as amnesty for immigrants who broke U.S. laws.

According to the Times, the timing of the hearings almost guarantees that formal congressional negotiations on the bill wouldn't begin until September, a time when congressional campaigns are entering their critical final weeks and during which lawmakers tend to shy away from divisive issues.

Missouri Republican Representative Roy Blunt said it was unlikely an agreement would be reached before November, pushing final consideration into the lame-duck session after the election. Major legislation doesn't typically get passed by lame-duck Congresses, which means the whole process would not start up again until 2007, if the new Congress is still committed to reform at that point.

The decision to delay the debate exposed a divide between House Republicans and the White House, which said President Bush would continue to press for the legislation and vowed to work with Congress to reach a consensus.

Some Senate Republicans said they thought the move might backfire on their House colleagues. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, "The question is, is it better to solve the issue before the election or is it better to make people mad and do nothing?" according to the Times. "I think it is hard to go to the electorate when you have the White House, the Senate and the House and say that you cannot at least go through the effort of trying to get a bill. That would to me be a sign of inability to govern."

But despite pressure from the White House to pass a bill and warnings from Republican colleagues in the Senate about a potential backlash from Latino voters — the fastest-growing voter bloc — House Republicans appear ready to run in November on their hard-line stance.

A recent special-election win in San Diego County by a Republican who pledged to build a fence from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico helped convince Republican doubters about the soundness of the anti-illegal immigrant strategy, according to Rivlin. Even vulnerable House Republicans have told party leaders they are planning to run on their border-crackdown measure, and anti-immigration ads have become a staple of their campaigns across the country.