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Immigration Backers Fly Solo

House Democrats leading the charge for comprehensive immigration reform are taking a new tack in their efforts to send a bill to President Barack Obama next spring: Do it without Republicans.

Members say they are feeling newly emboldened to go their own way after the White House this month signaled a willingness to tackle the controversial issue next year. What’s more, Democrats recognize the issue is a politically sensitive one for Republicans hoping to curry favor with Hispanic voters in 2010.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, said Hispanic lawmakers were taking notes during the health care reform debate, when House Republicans stood firm in their opposition to key aspects of the Democratic plan. In the end, he said, Democrats preserved the heart of their proposal by holding together, not by chipping away at core principles to win over Republicans.

“Had we negotiated with the Republicans on a bipartisan basis, we wouldn’t have had a public option, so there would have been nothing to mobilize us. We did that with immigration reform in the past,— Gutierrez said, signaling that he plans to begin the immigration reform process with a less compromised bill than he has before.

“Our bill will be to immigration reform what the public option was to health care reform,— Gutierrez said.

Another House Democrat involved in immigration reform discussions said candidly of Republicans, “We don’t need them.—

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who co-sponsored bipartisan immigration reform legislation with Gutierrez in 2007 that failed to pass, said he hasn’t had any role in crafting legislation this time around.

“Why? I haven’t had the invitation,— Flake said. He said that while he doesn’t know what Gutierrez is drafting, he’s heard rumors that unions are “pushing hard— to not include the stringent requirements on temporary worker programs that were in the 2007 bipartisan bill, such as steep fines and English-speaking requirements.

“I’m not sure how much support they’ll get on the Republican side unless it has those elements,— Flake said. “Maybe with the increased majority Democrats enjoy, some people think they don’t need Republicans. This is one that’s very difficult to push through on a partisan basis, during an election year in particular.—

A liberal House immigration bill is likely to be balanced out by the Senate, however. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is working with Republicans in that chamber to craft a more moderate bill. And CHC leaders said the Senate is likely to kick off formal debate on the issue with Schumer’s bill, due out in January.

Gutierrez plans to introduce the House bill on Dec. 15 and is aiming for 100 co-sponsors. To that end, he organized a meeting last Wednesday with key Members of several Democratic caucuses — including Reps. Jared Polis (Colo.), Mike Honda (Calif.), Howard Berman (Calif.), Keith Ellison (Minn.) and Yvette Clarke (N.Y.) — to press them to build support within their respective groups.

Gutierrez acknowledged that no Republicans participated in the meeting. “We were working on putting together a team of people for the Democratic Caucus. And to promote this in the Democratic Caucus,— he said.

His efforts were already paying off that night: Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), one of the attendees in Gutierrez’s huddle and co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was able to secure the CPC’s endorsement of the immigration reform principles laid out by Gutierrez.

Also that night, Gutierrez and other CHC members took part in a teleconference that reached out to more than 60,000 people in 45 states to rally grass-roots support for immigration reform. The group behind the event, the Reform Immigration for America Campaign, billed the gathering as a “demonstration of organizational might— behind advancing the issue.

The meeting was “very good and energetic,— said CHC Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), one of the meeting’s participants. “We are just getting the troops ready.—

Proponents of immigration reform are also riding high after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently indicated the White House is ready to begin the work of overhauling immigration laws.

“The hope is that when we get into the first part of 2010, that we will see legislation begin to move,— Napolitano said in a mid-November speech at the Center for American Progress. That legislation should not only give law enforcement officials more tools to fight illegal immigration, but create a “tough pathway— for undocumented workers to gain legal status, she said.

CHC leaders are banking on a strategy of sending House Members home with their legislation at the end of the year for review, followed by intensive grass-roots campaigning kicking off in the week before Obama’s State of the Union address in January. From there, reform backers acknowledge they have a limited window to try to pass a bill before it gets dangerously close to midterm election season.

“As a nine-term Member, I understand that the likelihood of success diminishes every week after April 1,— Gutierrez said. “First quarter, let’s get it done and let’s move forward.—

Velázquez warned Republicans that their efforts will likely backfire if, in the coming months, they plan to use procedural motions to force Democrats to votes on pieces of comprehensive immigration reform — a tactic that the GOP has embraced this year.

“They should be worried,— the CHC chairwoman said. “The numbers are there. People are becoming citizens, and the first thing they do is register to vote and vote. So if they continue to attack immigrants in this country, they will continue to do it at their own peril.—

Some Republicans already appear uneasy about having an immigration reform debate next year.

Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Steve King (R-Iowa) held a public forum Thursday to raise concerns that, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, as many as 8 million illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans during the recession.

“That the secretary of Homeland Security urges amnesty for the illegal immigrants who hold these millions of jobs insults unemployed and underpaid Americans,— Smith said in his opening remarks. He called for beefing up worksite enforcement as the most effective way to give these jobs back to legal citizens.

King speculated that conservative “tea party— activists, who had a visible presence during the health care debate, may make immigration reform their next front.

“They don’t like illegal immigrants,— he said. “They’re animated by America and inspired by the flag. I wouldn’t put it past them.—

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