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CHC Frustrated on Immigration

The implosion of the Senate immigration reform deal last week has frustrated members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who were counting on the Senate to pass a bill — even one they find to be overly harsh — to get the ball rolling in the House.

House Members intensely lobbied Senators on Thursday in a fruitless search for votes to end debate.

“We need the Senate to pass a bill,” said CHC Chairman Joe Baca (D-Calif.), coming back from a meeting with Senate leaders. “We can tune it when it gets to the House, but we’ve got to get it.”

Despite some previous comments to the contrary, House leaders are unlikely to move forward unless the Senate can resuscitate the bill in the next few weeks. The reality is that Democratic leaders could push through a bill but don’t want to ask Members to take a tough vote unless there is a decent chance it will result in law.

“If the Senate doesn’t act, it’s unlikely the House will move forward in July,” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

That marks a slight shift from what Hoyer said on Wednesday, when the Senate debate was still in full swing. He said then that Senate passage “was not a condition for going forward” in the House.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), though, has been more adamant in her position.

“The Speaker has said all along that the Senate must act first on comprehensive immigration reform,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.

Elshami held out hope that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can still cut a deal. “Let’s just see what the Senate ends up with in the next few weeks,” he said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who has taken a lead role in bipartisan negotiations in the House, said on Thursday the Senate must act first and put the onus on President Bush to get Republicans on board. “The Senate’s got to go first. And the president has got to produce 60 votes in the House to get a bipartisan bill. Democrats know what we need to do.”

Members of the CHC said they hoped the House moves forward either way.

“I would hope we don’t get caught up because the Senate does or doesn’t do something,” asserted Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the CHC’s first vice chairman, on Thursday. “The position of the Caucus continues to be that we have to deal with it.”

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said last week the whip operation has already started work on lining up votes for a bill, but he said passing the legislation is “not a necessity.”

“It is preferable that we do something so it doesn’t become a political football in the next election,” he said.

If the House ever does take up immigration reform, it’s unclear whether it would take up some version of the Senate legislation or its own measure.

“What we’re hoping is the character of the [Senate] bill doesn’t morph dramatically,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).

CHC members said that there had been fears that key pieces of the legislation might be shelved by House leaders in an effort to appeal to conservative Democrats and Republicans, but those fears have been somewhat alleviated and they are working together to try to reach a consensus.

Grijalva said that the Hispanic Caucus has been willing to compromise to secure a bipartisan bill and is working with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) on a House version of legislation modeled somewhat on the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act proposed by Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

“We have a very delicate balance” between making changes to appeal to conservatives and losing the Hispanic caucus, Grijalva said.

Lofgren — who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, citizenship, refugees, border security, and international law, and heads the Democratic legislative effort — declined last week to discuss the House measure pending Senate action, including whether she will pursue the STRIVE Act or a new measure.

“Instead of authorship or a bill number, we’re looking for principles and policies and the CHC will be intimately involved in all of it,” she said.

The CHC is clearly less concerned about what emerges from the Senate than having something emerge at all.

The hope, Grijalva said, is that if the Senate ultimately can produce a bill, that Senators will be willing to support a less-punitive measure in conference, Grijalva said.

“Once you put your toe in the water, they are going to have to swim at some point,” he said.

Meanwhile, a band of House Republicans, including former Republican Study Committee Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), continued to try to forge a compromise on the issue centered on a “touchback” provision requiring illegal immigrants to leave the country to remove the tinge of “amnesty.”

“The symbolism of a touchback is good,” Grijalva said. “Practically it makes no sense.”

Nonetheless, Grijalva said, the CHC has been willing to support a significant touchback provision as the price of a deal. But any such provision must be realistic or illegal immigrants will not voluntarily come forward, he said. “The fear many people have is that you go and never come back,” he said.

But several of Pence’s fellow Republicans and some Democrats like the idea.

“I think Mike’s plan plays a real constructive role and I think he’s on to something,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who wants some form of comprehensive legislation to pass. “We’d probably have to start from scratch and I think Pence provides a way to move forward.”

Even Clyburn has endorsed it, praising the concept of “Ellis Island”-style centers in neighboring countries where illegal immigrants could go to be reprocessed for re-entry and legalization of their status.

Meanwhile, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the most strident opponents of the immigration legislation, predicted that House Democrats would pass a bill with as few as 20 Republican votes because of the likelihood that illegal immigrants granted a pathway to citizenship would ultimately become Democratic Party voters. If they do so, it would be a “cynical ploy” that showed they love power “more than they love America,” King charged.

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