Boehner doesn't rule out immigration vote

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday held out the possibility that Congress could vote on a proposal to give green cards to young illegal immigrants who serve honorably in the U.S. military.

Boehner is coming under pressure to allow a vote on the Defense authorization bill from a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who has championed the issue.

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Boehner said the Defense bill is the wrong spot for the vote, calling it "inappropriate," but he didn't rule out a vote on stand-alone administration.

“There have been discussions about that, but no decisions,” he said.

Denham, who introduced the same proposal during last year’s Defense authorization debate but yanked it in deference to colleagues, said he would “prefer” to see the issue taken up solo.

“That’s not a discussion we have had yet but it certainly would be a willing compromise,” he told reporters after the event. “I want a date certain of when a standal-one bill would be” brought to the floor.

Denham has vowed to get his amendment, the Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training (ENLIST) Act, into the fiscal 2015 defense bill despite opposition from GOP leadership.

“They’re willing to put their lives on the line for our freedom. Why wouldn’t we have that as part of our national Defense authorization bill?” Denham asked during a Capitol Hill press conference. He was joined by Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) and Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.).

White House press secretary Jay Carney also weighed in on the issue on Tuesday. Carney made the case that the nation needed comprehensive immigration reform and said that the Denham proposal "would not in any way fix our broken immigration system or tackle the heart of the problem."

At the same time, Carney seemed less than optimistic about the chances of comprehensive liberal reform.

"I'm not going to say the odds are overwhelming," he told reporters. "I mean, we're talking about House Republicans, and they have had a great deal of difficulty confronting this issue." 

Denham and Gutierrez expressed optimism about a Defense Department review that would enlarge the application pool for some illegal immigrants to join the armed services, however.

On Monday, Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, said the Pentagon was looking at the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, which has enlisted nearly 3,000 foreign nationals with vital medical and language skills since 2009. The effort excludes illegal immigrants but allows the Defense secretary to define what abilities are deemed “vital to the national interest.”

That review, being done in concert with the departments of Homeland Security and Justice, should wrap up this summer, Wright said at a field hearing of the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee in Chicago.

“If the Defense Department changes the criteria, I would welcome that,” Denham said during the press conference.

Denham, along with Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), will testify before the House Rules Committee on Tuesday on behalf of his ENLIST amendment, as well as two others that would purge immigration-related proposals from the Pentagon budget blueprint.

Gutiérrez said he expects the measure to be ruled “in order” to the authorization bill “as it was last year.”

—This story was updated at 3:09 p.m.