GOP to stress immigration reform

With Senate Republicans debating the next course of action on immigration reform, GOP leaders in the House are hoping to get out in front on the issue by reminding voters that they have already passed a series of tough bills to crack down in illegal immigration.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is expected to address immigration reform in a speech later this week before the National Urban League, and the Republican Conference office has distributed talking points lauding border-security legislation that has passed the House.

“Our message in this debate is that the House passed a border-security bill with the understanding that America is a nation of immigrants, a nation at war and a nation of laws,” Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said. “This is a complex issue, and the House looks forward to working with the Senate and the administration as the process moves forward.”

The recent political maneuvering illustrates the political difficulties facing members of both chambers on how to update the current immigration laws, with the Senate expected to vote on its bill later this week.

Reform is particularly difficult for Republicans because the president’s proposal to expand current guest-worker programs would include a path to citizenship for undocumented workers already in the country, angering many conservative-base voters who argue that these workers are taking jobs from citizens born in the United States.

Guest-worker advocates took to the streets in large numbers this past weekend, holding sizable rallies in cities across the country to protest the move toward tougher enforcement. On the other side, guest-worker opponents have overwhelmed congressional offices with e-mails, letters and phone calls.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) gave members of the Judiciary Committee until last night to work out a compromise on guest-worker legislation before he would bring his own enforcement-only bill to the floor as a replacement.

The House Republican Conference office distributed talking points to press staff last Friday about the Real ID Act and the border-security bill that House members approved late last year, conference spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said. The goal is to remind members and their staffs about the bills the House has passed as grassroots groups on both sides of the debate continue flooding offices on Capitol Hill with telephone calls.

In addition, the House Republicans’ theme of the week is “Securing our Borders” and members have been encouraged to hold one-minute speeches and special orders on the floor.

Immigration reform divides more along geographic lines than partisan ones, but Democrats last year agreed, in principle, that any major overhaul should be comprehensive and include a guest-worker program in addition to enhanced border security.

In a nominally unrelated event that echoes the immigration debate, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are scheduled to hold a press conference tomorrow afternoon at Union Station to unveil their own comprehensive national-security plan, titled “Real Security.”

Hastert is expected to address immigration and border security in his speech to the National Urban League on Thursday, Bonjean said.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is also expected to address immigration during his weekly press briefing this afternoon, according to a spokesman. Boehner is supportive of the tougher enforcement penalties, but he voted against a House version of the bill late last year because he felt the employer-verification program places an unnecessary burden on small-business owners.

If legislation emerges from the Senate, advocates on both sides of the issue will pay close attention to those members named to the House-Senate negotiations as an indication about the direction a final bill might be headed.

The initial strategy was for House leaders to marry their enforcement-only bill to the Senate’s guest-worker compromise, but the gulf between the two camps has made compromise extraordinarily difficult.