By Russell Berman - 06/03/13 09:00 AM EDT
The House Judiciary Committee plans to approve multiple immigration bills and send them to the full chamber for votes, as GOP leaders move toward a piecemeal approach to reform rather than a comprehensive bill.
In an interview with The Hill, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the GOP leadership’s point man on immigration, said he would begin marking up his bills “in the not-too-distant future.”
He would not make any commitment to broader immigration reform legislation that a bipartisan group of House negotiators is struggling to complete.
These comments are significant because Goodlatte he has not previously agreed to consider amendments and schedule a vote on his panel's immigration bills. They suggest GOP leaders are anxious to produce legislation to counter the Senate bill, which supporters will try to get the upper chamber to pass this month.
Goodlatte's bills would create an agricultural guest-worker program, increase visas for high-skilled immigrants and implement an e-verify system. Goodlatte said a fourth bill to crack down on immigrants who overstay their visas is coming this week.
Democrats, and some Republicans, say immigration reform must be comprehensive and that a piecemeal approach is unworkable.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is faced with the vexing task of steering an overhaul through a Republican conference dominated by lawmakers long opposed to a comprehensive approach to immigration reform.
“The House is going to work its will on immigration,” Boehner vowed last month at a press conference. “Don’t ask me how,” he quipped a few moments later.
That same day, Boehner, Goodlatte and the entire House GOP leadership issued a statement saying the House would produce its own immigration proposal and not simply “take up and pass” the Senate plan.
The bipartisan House group, which includes long-time reform advocates Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), has met privately for more than four years but has yet to finish its legislation. The incomplete bill has been kept under wraps not only from the public but also from other legislators. Democratic staffers spent the Memorial Day recess drafting legislative language for the four Republican members to review, a congressional aide said, but the bill is still not expected to be released until mid-June at the earliest.
The Senate plans to begin a floor debate on its Gang of Eight bill next week with the goal of passing it before July 4. House lawmakers are watching closely. One aide said some Democrats are wary of endorsing a more conservative House proposal before the Senate acts. The concern is that if House Democrats publicly back language less favorable to liberal reform advocates, it may embolden Republicans in the Senate to seek changes that could drag that proposal to the right, the aide said.
At the center of the debate is Goodlatte, a 20-year House veteran who became Judiciary chairman this year. He supports reform but has avoided big policy pronouncements and has said for months that the House could do the job in pieces or in one large bill.
Gutierrez, a Democrat, praised Goodlatte and said his commitment to immigration reform was a reason he gave up two decades of seniority on the Financial Services Committee to join the Judiciary Committee as a junior member. “Nothing has made me change my mind,” Gutierrez said. “I think he is serious about getting immigration reform done this year.”
Democrats describe Goodlatte as a mystery.
“He’s hard to read,” one Democratic aide said. "He's a smart chairman in that he's keeping all of his options open and keeping everyone happy."
Goodlatte is particularly clear on one point: He does not like the Senate bill, which grants undocumented immigrants a provisional legal status before the border is fully secured.
“We have some very serious concerns about the Senate bill, and I won’t speak for anybody other than myself, but I believe the Senate bill is on a course, if it were adopted and put into law, to repeat the mistakes made in 1986,” he said, referring to the Reagan-era immigration law.
“There’s a long pathway to citizenship in the Senate bill, but the legal status is given almost immediately,” Goodlatte said. He criticized promises in the Senate proposal to implement a strengthened e-verify system for employers and enhancements to border security that include a way to document both entry and exit that would come after the initial legalization for immigrants. “That is the trap. That is the mistake that was made in 1986. We can’t repeat it again,” he said.
Continued delay by the bipartisan House group is pushing Goodlatte toward a piecemeal approach because he does not want to cede initiative to the Senate. “My goal is to produce a bill out of the House or a series of bills out of the House that addresses all of the issues related to fixing our broken immigration system,” he said. “Then obviously we would have to work out very substantial differences with the Senate, and therefore a conference [committee] would in my opinion be the way to do that.”
“We’ll have to see how all of this develops, but that’s our goal,” Goodlatte added.
He said he’s had many conversations with members of the House group, but he wouldn’t say whether he expects to back their proposal. “I do not know enough about it to determine whether or not I could support it,” he said.