Key Dem: Immigration bill lacks votes

A leading proponent of comprehensive immigration reform admitted Thursday that “there are an insufficient number of Democratic votes” to pass a bill this year.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s (D-Ill.) comments are significant because he has aggressively pushed President Barack Obama to pass immigration reform during this Congress.

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The Illinois Democrat appeared at a press conference Thursday to tout that 102 lawmakers — all Democrats — have signed on to his reform measure.

“There are an insufficient number of Democratic votes to pass this in the Senate or in the House. I’ve said it. There are an insufficient number. We are 102 strong, we are 102 commitment, but we are insufficient,” Gutierrez said.

The prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in the next Congress are not rosy either. There will likely be fewer Democrats in both chambers, and some Republicans who previously backed a guest-worker program have shifted their positions. And there are many centrist House Democrats who have made it clear they will not support any bill that could be criticized as an “amnesty” measure.

While on the campaign trail, Obama vowed that he would pass immigration reform in 2009. He later vowed it would pass this year, but in April said Congress may not have the “appetite” to deal with the hot-button issue before the midterm elections.

Two weeks later, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said it’s “unlikely” that the Senate would move on immigration reform this year.

Gutierrez was quick to say on Thursday that he holds out hope that an immigration bill will move this year and has indicated he is very open to compromise on a measure that will attract enough support to pass.

The earliest Congress could act this year, according to Gutierrez, is in September — after the Senate has dealt with the Supreme Court confirmation of Elena Kagan. However, Senate leaders have opted to address energy legislation before immigration, and that effort is unlikely to be completed before the August recess.

Democratic leaders in Congress have agreed that the Senate will tackle immigration reform before the House does.

“Things have improved. We are making movement within the Senate. The community groups are advocating and organizing, and we see the new energy, precisely because of Arizona and the urgency,” Gutierrez said.

But Arizona’s controversial border security law, which will likely be legally challenged by the Obama administration, has not led to a slew of new votes for comprehensive immigration reform. Initially, some Democrats believed the media attention on Arizona would trigger momentum for an immigration bill, but polls show that many Americans support the state law.

 Gutierrez has a different view, saying the Arizona law “has changed the equation. People are active, people are energetic, people want action.”

Moreover, he said, 30 Democrats have signed on to his bill since the law was enacted.

Gutierrez commended Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for engaging in a serious effort to move the controversial piece of legislation through the Senate in short order.

“I know that the majority leader has been very, very good. He’s been … trying to find a vehicle to move this forward in the Senate. He’s made a commitment to do that, and I believe he’s doing everything he can to keep that commitment,” Gutierrez said, adding that “it doesn’t make it easy when people like” GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) are not helping like they did several years ago.

McCain and Graham have insisted this year that implementing comprehensive immigration reform remains contingent on securing America’s borders.

In an interview with The Hill earlier this year, Gutierrez threatened to urge Latino voters to stay home this November if the Democratic Party does not make a concerted effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

His comments did not sit well with many Capitol Hill Democrats, who are working to preserve their majorities in the midterm elections.

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Asked on Thursday if Latinos and reform supporters would vote if Democrats failed to act, Gutierrez responded, “I think you are going to find that … people are going to take specific actions against specific members. You probably will see that.

 “I am not calling for that to happen, but I think that that’s a natural consequence of this whole thing.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, blamed dozens of House Democrats for holding up immigration reform.

“Obviously within our caucus, it’s 30 or 40 people that are afraid of this issue, afraid it will affect their election and won’t cooperate on it,” Grijalva said, adding that the White House has not effectively used the bully pulpit to advance the legislation.

A key GOP lawmaker said Gutierrez shouldn’t count on attracting Republican support in the House.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who co-sponsored the bipartisan, bicameral 2006 reform measure with Gutierrez, McCain and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), indicated that the drive to pass immigration reform in his conference gave way to a push for stricter border security policy.

 “I’m willing to work with anybody to get it through, but I’m under no illusion that we can. A lot of the Republicans, particularly in the Senate, who are pushing for comprehensive reform have said until we see the borders secure, we can’t move to the other elements, so that just puts us in a holding pattern,” Flake said.

Flake and Gutierrez have spoken about the issue as recently as a few weeks ago but have not engaged in formal conversations on the matter.

Flake added, “It’s a tough issue for both sides of the aisle.”

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