By Molly K. Hooper - 11/03/11 09:15 AM EDT
House Republicans are split over an immigration bill that is backed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney as the measure is attracting escalating criticism from industry groups and rank-and-file members.
The rift over House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) E-Verify bill is jeopardizing its chances of passing the Republican-controlled House.
Democrats, by and large, oppose the legislation, which would mandate that employers use the E-Verify system to check their employees’ legal work status.
Smith’s measure in September cleared the Judiciary panel on a party-line vote, though it isn’t clear that the bill has the votes to pass on the House floor.
Republican lawmakers have major concerns with key aspects of the bill’s effects on states’ rights, the federal government’s enforcement of the system and its impact on the agriculture industry, which relies on foreign labor.
Debates over illegal immigration have been a theme of the GOP presidential primary, with Smith’s bill getting some attention.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has endorsed the national E-Verify mandate, and released a Web ad on Wednesday attacking fellow GOP White House contender Rick Perry, governor of Texas, for his opposition to a statewide E-Verify program.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who has been mentioned as a potential Republican 2012 vice presidential nominee, recently told The Hill that he supports E-Verify “in concept,” adding that “we need an employment-based verification system.”
Rubio said he has heard objections raised from agriculture sector, suggesting he sees the need for flexibility in E-Verify legislation.
Meanwhile, sources say that at least two dozen House GOP lawmakers have an issue with Smith’s bill because it includes language to preempt the states and local governments and keep them from enforcing their own employment verification laws.
The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed Smith’s bill, maintains that the preemption provision is vital to its support.
Freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who campaigned on battling illegal immigration last year, is leading the opposition to Smith’s bill.
As mayor of Hazleton in 2006, he cracked down on employers who knowingly hired illegal workers. Barletta says that if Smith’s bill were to become law, cities like Hazelton and states like Arizona, which have stringent immigration laws on the books, would be prevented from enforcing their state-passed mandates.
“I have no faith that the federal government is serious about enforcing our immigration laws. They haven’t, I don’t believe they will. And the Supreme Court agrees that the states have the right — why would we come along now and take that away from them? And the United States Chamber gets solidly behind this preemption — which raises all sorts of red flags for me — this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this bill,” Barletta said in an interview with The Hill.
A source close to the Chamber of Commerce, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says that the hodgepodge of local and state laws on immigration matters is disruptive to businesses.
“The whole mantra that [Smith] and others have is … we need to make this work for employers. I can’t tell you how much we hear from our state and local chambers as well as the members of our policy committees that this patchwork of state laws is a huge problem. A huge problem,” the source told The Hill.
Other groups, such as the National Small Business Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, have objected to provisions in Smith’s bill.
Lawmakers who represent districts with many agriculture workers believe that the bill isn’t going to make it to the floor unless it is amended.
California Rep. Dan Lungren (R) told The Hill that he supports E-Verify but that “it has to be accompanied by a workable guest worker program for agriculture.”
“A bill on E-Verify won’t come to the floor unless we address agriculture, I am convinced,” Lungren said.
Smith however, remains undeterred, and downplayed GOP opposition to his bill. He declined to predict when it would hit the House floor, but seemed optimistic that it could happen sooner rather than later.
Smith cannot count on a lot of help from Democrats. During the markup this fall, Democrats questioned why Republicans — who have decried government regulations and their effect on jobs — would try to pass a bill that would impose more mandates on businesses.
Even if Smith’s bill passes the House, it is unlikely to attract the necessary 60 votes in the Senate.
— Bob Cusack contributed to this article.