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Immigrant bill might be doomed this year

Bush's call for action delayed by House's plan for public hearings
GEBE MARTINEZ
Houston Chronicle

In a sign that major immigration legislation may be dead for this year, House leaders decided Tuesday to conduct summer hearings across the nation to gauge public opinion before any formal negotiations with the Senate on a final reform measure.

The move — a rebuke to President Bush's call for quick action on a bill similar to the Senate's — creates a delay that is almost fatal to the idea of Congress passing a bill before the November elections, according to supporters of the Senate's approach to the issue.

"Whether they are trying to kill (the immigration bill) or not, this could be the death knell," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said. "I don't know how you have time to do hearings and get it done by the end of September," when election season makes the issue too hot to handle.


Divisions
The Senate version calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration along with a guest worker program and an opportunity for citizenship for most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.

The House version calls only for tighter immigration enforcement.

President Bush, who backs the framework of the Senate bill, has called for quick action on a final bill. The House version, which underscores divisions between conservative lawmakers and the Republican White House, sparked widespread protest marches across the country by immigrants and their advocates.

Conservative commentators have stirred opposition to the Senate bill by calling it amnesty.

Now the national debate may produce no new laws in 2006.

Given the differences between the House and Senate bills, "we all know it's going to be a challenge, under the best of circumstances, to get it done this year," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who voted against the Senate bill. "But that continues to be my goal."

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, ranking Democrat on the House immigration subcommittee, said she would push for one of the public hearings to take place in Houston, which has strong interest in the bills from immigrants, citizens, businesses and religious groups.

But she warned lawmakers to conduct civil and fair hearings.

"If these hearings are to promote or to cause the divisiveness, to tear America apart, then that would be an absolute dereliction of responsibility of this Congress, and I believe we would harm the security of America and not help it," Jackson Lee said.


Lawmaker says House split
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, a key member of the House Homeland Security Committee, one of the panels that will hold the hearings, said the House is split on how to proceed with the immigration debate.

"There are many that feel it's either our (House) bill or no bill. My personal opinion is I would kind of like to get something done," said McCaul, whose district includes western Harris County. "I got elected to get something done."

Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said the White House remained resolved to get an immigration bill done this year.

"This is a complex issue that requires complex legislation to solve, and so we can understand why they want to take a closer look," she said. "We are going to continue to work with members to see if we can reach a consensus."

House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio acknowledged that Americans want a solution.

"I think that we clearly want to solve this problem, but 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," he told reporters.

Top House Republicans, including Boehner and House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., had said they wanted Congress to produce a negotiated immigration bill before the elections.

But House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said last week he wanted to take a long look at the Senate bill and resist pressures to act quickly before the election, in which all House seats and a third of the Senate are on the ballot.


Monitoring election results

House Republicans are monitoring how the immigration issue is playing in special elections and party primaries.

In Utah, GOP Rep. Chris Cannon, who favors an approach similar to the president's, is facing a tough primary challenge next week from businessman John Jacob, who opposes the parts of the Senate bill that go beyond the crackdown.

Formal talks between the House and Senate have yet to begin.

But Senate bill sponsor John McCain, R-Ariz., said he already has had informal talks with House counterparts. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he still expects to meet with Sensenbrenner to work out differences in the legislation.

"I think the House wants a bill," Specter maintained.

Regardless of bipartisan support for the Senate bill, some opponents are calling it the Kennedy bill. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., considered by many conservatives to be the epitome of New England liberals, co-sponsored the original bill with McCain.

"This is clearly a delay tactic by the House Republicans who have been dead set against comprehensive reform from the beginning," Kennedy said of GOP leaders' plans for hearings in July and August.

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