By Mike Lillis - 09/26/13 02:00 PM EDT
House Democrats are shifting course on immigration with a partisan bill designed to unite the caucus, according to Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who is worried the move will sink bipartisan talks.
"Let's have a bill that unifies Democrats — and that's our starting point — but let's not give up on bipartisanship," Gutiérrez said late Wednesday night, as he emerged from a meeting of the Democratic Caucus in the Capitol. "I think that would be a mistake, and that we would have sinned terribly against the American people and their wishes."
Gutiérrez, a leading Democratic advocate for immigration reform, cautioned that it wasn’t clear "what's going to result [from] the meeting.”
"But let us understand something," he said. "If it is a proposal to unify Democrats, it's a proposal to unify Democrats. It's not a bipartisan [proposal]."
Gutiérrez said he'll stand behind whatever bill Democrats ultimately produce. But in speaking to the caucus Wednesday night, he said he emphasized that Republicans control the House and that any final reform proposal will necessarily require bipartisan support.
"I am one that understands that divided government, more than ever before, needs … a unified response," he said. "And that was my position to the Democratic Caucus.
"Democrats are united," he added. "We will make a proposal. We will be behind that proposal. I hope we begin conversations around that proposal. While that happens … I want to continue to work with other Republicans. … Because we know this won't be the ultimate bill, right? This is a Democratic beginning proposal."
The remarks highlight the delicate nature of the debate over immigration reform. While many conservatives have rejected a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that is favored by Democrats, many liberals have balked at the heavy border security measures pushed by Republicans.
Lawmakers like Gutiérrez are scrambling to find a workable compromise before the window of political opportunity, which opened after November's elections, slams shut.
While the Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill with a vote of 68-32 in June, bipartisan agreement has been absent in the House, where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has rejected the Senate bill in favor of a piecemeal approach that emphasizes the enforcement measures favored by conservatives but excludes the pathway to citizenship the Democrats are insisting upon.
Although several immigration-related measures have passed through the House Judiciary Committee, GOP leaders have not brought any of them to the floor, and it's unclear whether there will be time on the calendar to do so this year.
Illustrating the intensity of the divisions, a bipartisan group of seven House members negotiating a comprehensive reform bill disbanded earlier this month when two Republicans dropped out.
The impasse has led House Democratic leaders to launch a separate effort to move their own comprehensive reform bill, even as they concede they are powerless to bring such a proposal to the floor.
Gutiérrez said Wednesday there are at least 20 Republicans, and close to 200 Democrats, ready to support a comprehensive reform bill in the House — if only
GOP leaders would bring a bill to the floor.
"Republicans are going to have to come to grips with one reality: The votes already exist," he said. "It's time for Speaker Boehner to give us an opportunity."