House GOP threatens to 'blue-slip' bill

Lawmakers are shrouding themselves in a thin slip of blue paper as deep divisions on immigration policy are again being laid bare.

House Republicans have threatened to deliver a “blue slip” rejection of the Senate immigration bill, and Senate Democrats are blocking efforts to circumvent that maneuver.

The result is a procedural paralysis that has prevented the two chambers from even naming conference negotiators, a clear sign of the difficulties facing proponents of an immigration overhaul.

The Senate-written immigration bill contains tax provisions, violating the Constitution’s requirement that all revenue measures originate in the House. Any House member could object to the Senate bill on that basis, forcing debate and a vote on whether to reject the measure outright.

Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) is considered the most likely to raise such an objection, but any number of House conservatives would be happy to kill the Senate bill. To avoid that fate, Senate Republican leaders want to bring up a separate House-passed tax bill, gut it and replace its provisions with the Senate immigration bill. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has objected to that maneuver.

Reid said he is concerned that using a House-passed tax vehicle could invite the introduction of unrelated tax cuts into House-Senate conference negotiations. If President Bush wants progress on the bill, he should tell House Republicans, “Don’t raise the blue-slip issue,” Reid said.

But Republicans say the problem is Reid, not the blue slip.

“Unfortunately, the minority leader over there, Harry Reid, continues to stand in the way,” House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said yesterday. “I think he ought to quit playing politics.”

As lawmakers engaged a new round of finger-pointing yesterday, one thing remained clear: The immigration bill is stuck.

Conservative Republicans are dead-set against the Senate bill, which would beef up border security, establish a temporary-worker program and allow many of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country now to become citizens eventually.

The House version focuses solely on border security, and many House Republicans say the Senate bill would grant amnesty to millions of immigrants who broke the law to get here.

But proponents of the Senate bill say the blue-slip threat is merely a distraction, one of a number of tools the bill’s critics could use to thwart its progress if they chose to do so. If the will exists to strike a deal, they say, procedural roadblocks will not be a problem.

“Some technical blue slip is not going to stop any resolution that we come to,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a chief proponent of the Senate bill, said yesterday. “Let’s not get caught up in the minutiae and the weeds.”

McCain was among the leaders of a bipartisan core of senators who struck a deal on the immigration bill and then shepherded it through the Senate last month. Sixty-two senators, most of them Democrats, voted for the final bill.

The legislation drew harsh criticism from Senate conservatives, many of whom voted against it. Even if Reid were to allow GOP leaders to move forward, there is no guarantee that Republican senators would not use procedural weapons to stop action.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) tried to kill the bill on its first trip through the Senate.

Sessions sent a “Dear Colleague” letter yesterday in which he urged colleagues to study the details of the immigration bill, particularly the number of legal immigrants it would allow into the country in future years.

“It remains deeply flawed,” he wrote.

Republicans hinted yesterday that they have other options for getting around the blue-slip problem.

“There’s always a Plan B,” said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

In 2000, House and Senate leaders circumvented a similar problem by appointing “shadow” conferees to a bankruptcy bill and attaching their work product to the conference report on a separate bill, according to Walter J. Oleszek’s Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process.

But alternatives and timelines were in short supply yesterday.

“Things can break loose at any time,” Ueland said.

Patrick O’Connor contributed to this report.