Pelosi rallies Democrats behind sweeping immigration package (video)

House Democratic leaders unveiled legislation Wednesday to overhaul the nation’s broken immigration system and create a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal residents.

The sweeping proposal, which largely mirrors the bipartisan package approved by the Senate in June, is designed to keep the immigration issue in the headlines and intensify the pressure on GOP leaders to bring a reform bill to the floor.

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders have vowed to consider immigration reform before year’s end. But they’ve shown little urgency to do so, and the more pressing fiscal fights are threatening to push reform off the legislative calendar for 2013.

Behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Democrats said Wednesday that postponing the debate would be a mistake.

“We are more than prepared to move forward, and we’re asking our Republican colleagues to do the same thing,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said at a press briefing in the Capitol. “The time is now to act, not to push this forward until the next year.”

Boehner has already rejected the Senate’s approach to immigration reform and is not expected to act on the similar plan from House Democrats.

In lieu of a sweeping reform package, House Republicans have so far pushed a piecemeal approach that largely excludes citizenship benefits and focuses on enforcement measures. GOP leaders are eyeing broader reforms that could include a path to citizenship for certain immigrant kids, but those reforms have yet to be unveiled.

House Republicans were quick to pan the Democrats’ proposal. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement Wednesday warning that the legalization benefits would spike competition for jobs, steal employment opportunities from other workers and put “the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of U.S. citizens.” 

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he also opposes the package. 

“We’re not going that route in the House,” he said. “We’re doing regular order.”

The Democrats’ strategy to introduce legislation without Republican co-sponsors carries political risk. If immigration reform is viewed as a partisan issue, like gun control, it could scare away centrist Republicans and reduce the chances of a comprehensive bill passing before the midterm elections.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) warned last week that Democrats must step carefully so as not to alienate the Republicans whose support would be needed to get a bill to President Obama.

“Let’s have a bill that unifies Democrats — and that’s our starting point — but let’s not give up on bipartisanship,” he cautioned. 

Gutiérrez did not appear at Wednesday’s unveiling but endorsed the bill on the House floor hours earlier.

Pelosi, for her part, was quick to point out that each section of their bill has received GOP backing in one of the two chambers.

“Every piece of this legislation has had bipartisan support, and that was important to us,” she said.

The Democrats’ proposal is nearly identical to the Senate-passed bill but replaces the Senate’s border security language with a bipartisan amendment that passed unanimously through the House Homeland Security Committee in May. 

Sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), the Senate’s $38 billion border amendment would double the total number of Border Patrol agents and add more than 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico frontier. 

The House replacement, sponsored by McCaul and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), takes a much different tack. It calls on the Obama administration to come up with a border security plan ensuring the apprehension of 90 percent of attempted illegal crossings within five years, without dictating how it’s done.

Pelosi said Democrats introduced their bill only after it was clear that Republicans had rejected legislation crafted by the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan House group that spent years negotiating a comprehensive bill but disbanded last month.

“We waited for the Gang of Eight to be accepted. We graciously deferred to the Speaker as to the timing, as to the method,” she said. 

Now, she added, “We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to go to conference with a good bill.” 

— This story ws updated at 8:22 p.m.