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Senate Border Bill Steps on House Turf

Only representatives can write revenue bills, and the constitutional issue could let immigration hard-liners block a compromise.
Senate Border Bill Steps on House Turf
Only representatives can write revenue bills, and the constitutional issue could let immigration hard-liners block a compromise.
By Nicole Gaouette and James Gerstenzang
Times Staff Writers

June 2, 2006

WASHINGTON — A procedural glitch is adding new, and possibly significant, hurdles to the drive in Congress to approve sweeping changes to immigration policy.

The problem stems from the Senate bill that would create a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for many of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. Participants in the guest worker program would pay income taxes; illegal immigrants would, as part of the legalization process, be required to pay back taxes and new fees.

The Constitution, however, gives the House sole authority to originate bills that include revenue measures — and it allows any House member to object if a Senate bill does so.

Late last week, Senate aides said they received word from the House committee with jurisdiction over revenue issues that it would use that constitutional power to block further consideration of the Senate bill.

This problem is stalling efforts to appoint a House-Senate conference committee that would try to reach a compromise on the final form of immigration legislation.

Those negotiations were expected to difficult at best. But unless the procedural stumbling block is resolved, the talks won't even start.

Although the impasse may prove to be a minor problem, it could provide a way for House members who staunchly oppose the Senate's legalization measures to block any compromise efforts. That could mean no overhaul of immigration policy would emerge from Congress this year.

Senate leaders are trying to determine how to move forward.

"We went into the [Memorial Day] recess at a stalemate," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Word of the problem was spreading on Capitol Hill as President Bush on Thursday renewed his push for an immigration bill. In a speech in Washington, he stressed that although he recognized the difficulty in crafting a measure, compromise was necessary — particularly in determining how to treat longtime residents who entered the United States illegally.

The president's remarks came a week after the Senate passed its wide-ranging bill. The House measure, approved in December, contains no provisions for a guest worker program or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. It would make illegal presence in the country a felony, and would intensify border security.

As the Senate edged toward passing its bill, Senate aides received word that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) would block it because of its revenue-producing sections.

This practice is known as blue-slipping because Thomas would officially notify the Senate of his intentions on a slip of blue paper.

Thomas did not respond to requests for comment, and committee aides declined to elaborate on the dispute.

The Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office estimate that the Senate bill provisions would increase federal revenue by about $66 billion from 2007 to 2016.

The potential for a House objection stemming from these provisions did not come up during senators' lengthy negotiations over their bill earlier this year, a Senate Judiciary Committee aide said.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) proposed a technical way of skirting the problem: attaching the Senate's immigration bill to an existing House tax bill, Frist aides said.

After various legislative maneuvers, the two chambers could separate the tax and immigration measures and try, behind closed doors, to negotiate on a final immigration bill.

The Frist plan faces two hurdles. It requires a House vote to take effect, which would give the House members opposed to the Senate bill a chance to vote it down.

More immediately, Senate Democrats disagree with Republican assertions that Frist's plan is the only way to go forward. Minority Leader Reid has refused to approve the plan, blocking Frist from proceeding.

"We can solve this challenge if Harry Reid would agree to this solution," said Frist spokeswoman Carolyn Weyforth.

In a sign of the mistrust among leaders in both parties that has characterized much of the immigration debate, Weyforth attributed Reid's stance to a desire to thwart any resolution of the issue until after the November elections.

Many Republicans suspect Democrats would prefer such a delay so that they can keep criticizing the House's enforcement-only approach.

"With the president talking about immigration reform today, it amazes me that Reid is stalemating the entire bill," Weyforth said.

Manley, Reid's spokesman, dismissed Weyforth's assertion. And he said that if Frist was seriously committed to overhauling immigration policy, he would persuade House GOP leaders to allow the immigration bill to proceed to a conference committee.

Manley said Reid questioned the need to add the Senate's immigration bill to the tax measure, especially in light of the complications that might cause.

"We can get this done without resorting to extraordinary measures if all the parties were committed to getting it to conference as quickly as possible," he said.

Bush has said he wants an immigration bill sent to him quickly, a point he reiterated Thursday.

"The American people expect us to meet our responsibility and deliver immigration reform that fixes the problems in the current system, that upholds our ideals and provides a fair and practical way forward," he said.

He also repeated his disagreement with those lawmakers — mostly Republicans — who had said they would oppose any compromise bill that included legalization provisions.

"Some members of Congress argue that no one who came to this country illegally should be allowed to continue living and working in our country, and that any plan that allows them to stay equals amnesty, no matter how many conditions we impose," Bush said. "Listen, I appreciate the members are acting on deeply felt principles. I understand that."

But he called their approach "wrong and unrealistic."

"There's a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program that requires every illegal immigrant to leave" the country, he said.

"The middle ground recognizes there are differences between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently, and someone who has worked here for many years, who's got a home, a family and a clean record," Bush said.

The Senate bill would allow illegal immigrants who have been in the country five years or more to remain, continue working and eventually become legal permanent residents and citizens after paying back taxes, paying at least $3,250 in fines and fees and learning English.

Those who have been in the United States more than two years but less than five would be required to go to a point of entry at the border and file an application to return; those who have been in the country less than two years would be required to leave.