Democrats stymie Republican efforts to pass immigration reform measures

Republicans failed last week to keep provisions addressing illegal immigration in the Homeland Security spending bill, the latest sign that Democrats want to hold off on that debate until next year.

GOP senators had succeeded in attaching a pair of border security and enforcement provisions to the Senate version of the appropriations bill: one would have completed the 700-mile fence authorized along the Mexican border and the other would have permanently extended a requirement for all federal contractors to verify their employees through a government database.

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But Democrats stripped both provisions out in conference. They did extend the verification program by three years along with several expiring visa programs, including one for international medical graduates in rural states and another for religious workers.

"Clearly in our bill, we assumed nothing was permanent," said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for Homeland Security. "We took some stop-gap measures."

Lawmakers, Price said, know that immigration won't be a top priority in coming months, when Congress is looking to pass bills on healthcare, climate change and financial regulations, and address the struggling economy. Price said he believed Congress had the political will to tackle immigration early in 2010 but that it would be hard to pass anything once campaigning for the mid-term elections begins next summer and the presidential race begins in 2011.

Leaving the provisions out will give advocates for a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in they country more leverage to win over centrists once the immigration debate begins.

The most recent immigration overhaul stalled in 2007 when lawmakers couldn't agree, even though the effort was supported by President George W. Bush, Democratic leaders and centrist Republicans.

The path to citizenship, which was in that bill, ended up being a dealbreaker for conservatives, who view it as amnesty.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (S.C.), one of the Republicans who backed the immigration overhaul, said that the 3-year extensions of current policies were good steps but no substitute for broader reform.

"You may extend a program or two, but you're never going to solve this problem piecemeal," Graham said.

He suggested that compromises will be necessary to pass any legislation that realistically deals with the millions in the country illegally.

"I think America is ready to embrace give-and-take politics on this issue only if you can convince them that this will solve the problem," he said. "That's our challenge, to convince the American public that the border is more secure."

Republicans who opposed the last immigration overhaul are again pushing for increased immigration enforcement provisions in the 2010 spending bills.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) failed to get an amendment attached last week to the Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill that would have barred local law enforcement groups from receiving federal money for community policing programs if they refused to report illegal immigrants they encountered to federal authorities.

Large police departments, including those in New York City and Philadelphia, have long objected to the proposal to end “sanctuary cities”. They say it would have a chilling effect on policing in immigrant communities, with potential witnesses to crimes avoiding police for fear they will be reported.

Senators voted to table the amendment on a 38-61 vote, with every Democrat opposing the measure.

Vitter said that he hasn't seen any evidence that the gap between supporters and opponents of the comprehensive immigration overhaul has shrunk.

"I think there's very much still the same divide in Congress," Vitter told The Hill. "And I think there's still very much the same support among the American people for getting serious first with enforcement."