As GOP bickers over immigration, Boehner criticizes Dem 'silence'

As Republicans continue to bicker among themselves on immigration reform, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) ripped congressional Democrats yesterday for refusing to adopt a unified position on the controversial legislation.

The prospects for a bill’s being signed into law this year dimmed significantly last week after House Republican leaders announced a series of hearings to examine a comprehensive Senate package that would allow undocumented workers already in this country a path to legal status.

“I think a feeble response from House Democrats on border security makes clear they have no coherent policy on this issue,” Boehner said during his regular press briefing yesterday. “The stone silence from them is deafening.”

Democratic leaders have spent much of this debate on the sidelines while Republicans in the House have sparred openly with their GOP colleagues in the Senate over the politically perilous question of what to do with those workers already in this country.

Thirty-six Democrats broke with their leadership and voted to approve a House package late last year drafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that would increase border protection and impose stiffer sanctions on companies that employ illegal immigrants. That included all 10 members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) Frontline program for the most vulnerable incumbents.

Boehner voted against the Sensenbrenner bill, saying earlier this year that he saw some of the provisions as an unfunded mandate on employers.

Democratic leaders insist their members remain largely unified on immigration reform.

“Frankly, I think this is not particularly a problem for us Democrats because Democrats are pretty well united,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said during a recent press briefing. Hoyer said Republicans have a problem because GOP lawmakers in the House disagree with the White House while the Senate is somewhere in the middle. Most immigration experts say the Senate version is more to the administration’s liking because it calls for a guest-worker program.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized President Bush last week for not intervening more with his fellow Republicans to push “comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform.”

“I said all along that it wouldn’t happen unless the president used his leadership and intervened into this discussion to reject the Sensenbrenner Republican House bill,” Pelosi told reporters during her regular briefing Thursday.

The minority leader said House Democrats would appear at a number of the upcoming field hearings to question Republican lawmakers for failing to protect the border and American workers.

Asked if Democrats would participate in the hearings or if they would hold competing hearings, Pelosi replied, “I’m just saying we won’t be missing in the debate.”

The issue does not divide easily along partisan lines, but it has become increasingly difficult for the GOP, pitting Republican House leaders against Bush and a large bloc of GOP senators. In fact, Republicans in the House are not universally opposed to the White House-backed Senate plan.

Immigration reform has become a major campaign test for select congressional Republicans, most recently for Utah Rep. Chris Cannon in that state’s primary yesterday, which was undecided as of press time.

A political action committee affiliated with Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who has maintained a long and steady drumbeat opposing illegal immigration or undocumented workers already in this country, has contributed significant funds to Cannon’s Republican opponent, John Jacob, a wealthy developer.

Boehner’s criticism of Democrats comes as House Republicans are attempting to blame Democrats for the immigration bill that passed in the GOP-led Senate.

In addition to calling the Senate bill the “Reid-Kennedy bill,” in a nod to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden is pushing members and staff to criticize Democrats for not taking a harder stance on immigration, leadership aides said.

The Republican Conference office is also expected to make immigration reform a major component of its member-outreach kits for the Fourth of July recess, one leadership aide said. Those kits will include talking points on the House-passed bill as well as the five statements of principle on the reform issue.

A Pelosi aide said immigration reform is crumbling because House Republicans did not work closely with Democrats in the House.

“The Speaker and Congressman Boehner believe in the principle of the majority of the majority,” Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. “They only care about House Democrats when they’re in a political box and can’t think their way out.”

Senate Republicans were able to craft a bipartisan compromise because they worked more closely with the minority party, Crider said. More Democrats than Republicans voted for the Senate bill.

“Had the Republicans approached immigration reform in the way it should be, in a bipartisan, bicameral way … the House Republicans wouldn’t be in this position,” Crider said.

With the elections approaching, members from both parties are expected to shift the blame to their counterparts in the other party.

“If [Democrats] have to take a position it will rip their party apart,” one senior House GOP leadership aide said. “It’s going to put them in a position of backing an open border policy and weakened enforcement.”