House GOP to hold hearings on Senate immigration bill

Republican leaders in the House are organizing a series of committee hearings to examine Senate-passed legislation to restructure the country’s immigration laws.

The leaders clearly intend these hearings to increase their leverage on the brink of a tense bargaining session with the Senate. A procedural measure has stalled the bill indefinitely, preventing leaders from naming conferees.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) convened a meeting in his conference room yesterday morning with most of his elected leadership and nine committee chairmen. None of the leaders or chairmen made an official announcement upon leaving the meeting but confirmed that committee hearings were in the works.

“We want to have hearings on this bill,” Hastert told reporters yesterday. “I’ve asked the various chairmen to go out and have hearings so we understand what the American people are saying.”

The immigration issue pits a majority of GOP lawmakers in the House against President Bush and a handful of Republicans in the Senate. Despite an uproar of opposition to the president’s guest-worker plan, the administration continues to pressure Republican lawmakers in both chambers to support comprehensive reform.

Bush has toured the border in recent weeks with congressional Republicans, and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is touring parts of New Mexico and Texas this week to push the president’s comprehensive reform plan.

“We need to have comprehensive reform,” Gutierrez said in a phone interview from Odessa, Texas. “In order to secure our borders, we need to secure our interior and enforce employers.”

Gutierrez echoed Bush’s contention that border enforcement is the primary goal of any reform measure but that it is impossible to address enforcement realistically without accounting for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country.

The commerce secretary said it is imperative for Congress to work together in resolving this complicated issue and find a workable solution on which all sides could agree.

“The fact that it is complicated is not a reason to delay,” Gutierrez said. “It needs to be resolved as soon as possible.”

The House hearings would begin in July and run through August, members said yesterday. The special sessions would be held both in Washington and throughout the country. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said one goal of the hearings would be to address specific components of the Senate bill.

“We want to have a very clear idea of what is in the Senate bill and what some people think of some of the provisions in the Senate bill,” Boehner told reporters during one of his regular weekly press briefings.

He pointed to language in the Senate bill granting illegal immigrants the benefits of in-state tuition as one example of a Senate provision he objects to. A senior GOP leadership aide in the House said members also oppose provisions in the bill written by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would allow illegal immigrants to collect some Social Security benefits, as well as a provision that would require the undocumented workers to pay back taxes for just three of the five years leading up to their application for citizenship.

While a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) welcomed further inspection of the Senate measure by various House panels, Kennedy was less than enthused that House lawmakers want to inspect the Senate bill any more.

“This is clearly a delay tactic by House Republicans who have been dead set against comprehensive reform from the beginning,” Kennedy said in a statement released by his office. “We face an immigration crisis, and we need prompt and comprehensive action to address it — not more hearings.”

In addition to Hastert and Boehner, other GOP leaders attending the hour-long meeting included Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.); his chief deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.); Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio); National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.); and Policy Committee Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.).

Chairmen included the Judiciary Committee’s James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who is expected to take the lead in the negotiations for Republicans in the House; Homeland Security’s Peter King (R-N.Y.); Ways and Means’ Bill Thomas (R-Calif.); Government Reform’s Tom Davis (R-Va.); Resources’ Richard Pombo (R-Calif.); Intelligence’s Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.); and Administration’s Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.).

Given the breadth of the committees involved in the discussions, neither the chairmen nor the leaders could give any details about which committees would handle the particular details.

“There are policy issues in the Senate bill that stretch across a wide array of committees,” Boehner said.

By holding a series of hearings in Washington and elsewhere during the August recess, Republican leaders in the House are hoping to feed dissatisfaction with the bill, which would, in turn, give them more leverage heading into negotiations with the Senate.

Republican leaders would like to pass a bill increasing enforcement along the border and in the workplace before addressing an expansion of the current guest-worker plan, and most GOP lawmakers in the House are adamantly opposed to any provision that would grant eventual citizenship to workers who came to the United States illegally.

“We’re feeling pressure from the Senate and the administration, but we don’t feel we should pass something that Americans are upset about,” Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said. “Our chairmen need to put this under a microscope.”

Although the hearings could prevent Congress from moving any bill, Hastert said he remains committed to passing something soon.

“I’m not putting any timeline on this thing, but I think we need to get this thing done right,” Hastert said yesterday. “I told that to the president the other day that we need to have that discussion.”

Josephine Hearn contributed to this report.

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