Specter counters House in move to save immigration bill

When Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter stepped into the shower yesterday, it was an elusive immigration overhaul, not a slippery bar of soap, that he most hoped to keep within his grasp.

The Pennsylvania Republican wanted a way to counter the House GOP’s unusual post-passage hearings on the bill, which are sure to delay negotiations and give a platform to critics of the Senate’s “path to citizenship” for millions of illegal immigrants.

“I plan to hold some hearings of our own,” he told surprised reporters in the Capitol later in the day. “I just developed the idea this morning in the shower.”

Specter says he will start with a field hearing July 5 in Pennsylvania, the state he shares with fellow Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a leading foe of the bill who is in an uphill reelection bid.

Specter aims to sway the public rather than directly influence his congressional critics, he said. But his announcement had the feel of a return volley.

“I don’t start wars, but, if I’m forced to, I’ll participate,” he said.

The Senate version of the bill combines border security provisions with a guest-worker program and the controversial plan to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements. The measure is backed by a bipartisan set of senators who maintain that a deal can still be struck. It passed, 62-36, on May 25.

Opponents argue that the bill’s path to citizenship would amount to amnesty for people who broke the law to get into the country.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who voted against the bill, said he would consider attending Specter’s field hearings.

“A good place to have it would be in Arizona,” Kyl said.

“The more information the better,” said Amy Call, spokeswoman for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who supported the Senate bill.

The House version of the measure, passed in December, focuses solely on border protection, and many conservatives in both chambers are dead-set against the Senate’s citizenship provisions.

The stalemate has been reinforced by procedural objections, foremost a House threat to “blue slip,” or kill, the Senate version on the grounds that only the House can originate changes to tax law.

Most observers interpreted Tuesday’s announcement that the House would hold hearings as a concession from GOP leaders that they cannot enact a law before the November election. But Specter said there is still time.

“I don’t think it’s a death knell,” he said, noting that deals can be struck quickly in the Capitol.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that his position is somewhere between the House and Senate bills and that he believes negotiators can find common ground.

“I think there is a sweet spot out there,” Lott said. “If they’ll come see me, I’ll tell ’em how we can solve it.”

House Republican leaders said Tuesday that hearings would allow them to amplify objections to the Senate measure. The decision was announced after Speaker Dennis Hastert and other GOP leaders held a closed-door meeting with several committee chairmen.

Specter said his hearings are not intended to delay an overhaul that he supports.

“I’m doing it to develop a broader factual evidentiary record on the need for a comprehensive bill,” he said.

The hearings will be targeted at the public, he said, adding, “That’s what will influence the legislative process.”

One Pennsylvanian who already agrees with Specter on the immigration bill is Santorum’s November opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.

Santorum trailed Casey, 52 to 34 percent, in a poll of 1,076 Pennsylvania voters released yesterday by Quinnipiac University. In the same poll, 52 percent said they approve of the way Specter is handling his job as senator but only 38 percent said the same of Santorum.

“I think Senator Santorum is stating his own views, and I respect them,” Specter said, noting that he does not think hearings will “impact significantly on the issue in the campaign for him.”

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who became close to Santorum as a College Republican at Penn State University in the late 1970s, said discussion of the Senate immigration bill will cut to Santorum’s benefit.

“We need to stand back and let Americans understand what the Senate bill does,” Feeney said. “The Senate bill is a travesty.”