A bipartisan delegation of Hispanic lawmakers will meet this afternoon with President Bush to discuss immigration reform, marking the first time the Democratic and Republican factions have worked together since the ethnic caucus fractured along partisan lines in the early 1990s.
“We want to discuss with the president … what the administration is willing to do, and what we should try to accomplish,” said Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R-P.R.), chairman of the GOP-only group, the Congressional Hispanic Conference.
Democratic leaders in both chambers have said they will take up comprehensive immigration reform measures this year, with the Senate scheduled to begin debate in late May, even as Members have yet to hash out legislation. The House is expected to follow the Senate, with floor debate expected before the August recess.
Both chambers passed competing bills in the previous Congress but were unable to reconcile their vastly different versions.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joe Baca (D-Calif.) said he expects to promote a bipartisan House bill authored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that contains an array of provisions on border security, employment verification and enforcement, as well as for individuals now in the country illegally.
“We want to stress to the president that this is a bill that’s being supported by both sides of the House. … Let’s at least get through this bill and get it to conference,” Baca said of the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act, known as the STRIVE bill.
Although the California lawmaker acknowledged that the bill does not have unified backing among Members, he asserted that the House should push forward with it as a framework: “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Fortuño said he expects to discuss similar aspects of any potential immigration bill, including border security and guest-worker programs.
“Both groups support a comprehensive immigration approach,” Fortuño said, later adding: “We’re trying to stick to those general terms, that way we can keep everyone in the corral.”
A White House spokesman said Bush will reiterate his own desire to see Congress complete immigration reform in the near future.
“Members have strong feelings on many different issues, but comprehensive immigration reform is one where I think Members of both parties do understand the need to make progress on this issue, both in terms of enhancing our security [and] meeting economic needs,” said Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel.
In recent months, both Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez have met with House and Senate lawmakers to negotiate on potential proposals.
The Bush administration reissued its own immigration reform proposal in early April, including reforms to strengthen border security as well as provide temporary visas to illegal immigrants, but drew some criticism from Senate Democrats who balked at provisions such as a proposal that would mandate a high fee for citizenship.
The Wednesday meeting also marks the first time the Hispanic caucus and the Hispanic conference — each groups is comprised solely of Democrats or Republicans, respectively, although neither is technically a partisan organization — will collaborate since Republican lawmakers bolted the caucus in 1997 and later formed their own group in 2003.
“This is a historical meeting,” Baca said, later adding of the bipartisan efforts: “We’ve extended an arm and they’ve extended an arm as well.”
Both chairmen said Hispanic caucus and Hispanic conference leadership have discussed working together in a variety of legislative issues, adding that immigration was the obvious first choice.
“This one is so evident that it would be beneficial for everyone to try and do it,” Fortuño said.
Bipartisan agreement is expected to prove crucial to the immigration measure’s success, as House Democratic leaders have acknowledged that any such proposal must win significant Republican support to secure its passage.
Although Fortuño declined to discuss future alliances — “I am convinced there are other areas where we can see eye to eye or where we can agree on general terms,” he stated — Baca cited a broad range of areas where the two groups could work together, including education, business, health, voting rights and the census.
While there are no specific plans to do so, Baca also suggested that that the efforts could lead to the eventual reunification of the two Hispanic organizations
“I’d like to see us going in that direction in the future. Why not?” he said. “This is the beginning.”