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Democrats Try to Squelch House Republican Immigration Effort

The White House and Congressional Democrats are looking to scuttle Republican legislation to provide visas to high-skilled immigrants in what could prove to be the last bit of immigration politics on Capitol Hill before Election Day.

Bipartisan negotiations have been ongoing for months on a way to issue 50,000 new green cards to skilled immigrants, but those talks have broken down and House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) bill will see floor action Thursday.

Some K Street firms are trying to avoid the highly politicized fight because the bill has slim chances of passing. It will come to the floor under suspension of the rules Thursday as one of the last votes Members take before they recess and return to the campaign trail.

Doug Heye, deputy chief of staff to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said Democrats simply want to deny Republicans an election-year immigration win.

“The chairman made numerous good-faith offers to the Democrats. It became clear that while they often talked about doing something, they didn’t want to see a bill up before the election,” Heye said. “Further punting on this jobs issue is unacceptable to us, so we are acting.”

Democrats, however, say Republicans are politicizing an issue Democrats broadly support by bringing a bill with just one Democratic co-sponsor under suspension of the rules, which means the measure needs a two-thirds vote to pass.

“That became very clear when they said, ‘We have to take a vote before the election,'” one House Democratic staffer said. “They want to, just before the election, look like they’re for something on immigration to make it look they’re not against everything.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), both of whom negotiated with Smith at one point, introduced their own version of the bill. The main difference is that the Republican bill shifts the 50,000 visas from a green card lottery, which one Republican aide called a “magnet for fraud and a loophole for terrorists,” to high-skilled workers or those involved in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering or math.

Democrats would instead add the new visas on top of the existing lottery program, a proposal Democrats said was a nonstarter for Republicans.

“It’s almost like Republicans signed a Grover Norquist-type of immigration pledge, where all immigration has to be offset and we can’t increase immigration,” the House Democratic aide said.

The addition of the measure to the House calendar has prompted the White House to get involved. Lobbyists from both sides of the aisle briefed on the issue say the message from President Barack Obama’s administration is to sit this fight out and come out in favor of a bipartisan measure later.

“I think what the White House is saying is if it’s a Republican-only bill, you shouldn’t support it. It’s not going to go anywhere,” one Democratic K Street source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t think the White House is being heavy-handed because nobody thinks this is a real effort.”

This lobbyist added that entities that are “trying to do this in a bipartisan way will be looked on more favorably than those who are part of this partisan game Eric Cantor is playing.”

The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Some stakeholders who support passing high-skilled worker visa legislation have come out in support of the multiple bills by Members of both parties.

It’s a clear example of how advocacy groups and lobbyists are working hard to steer clear of the choppy political waters in the runup to the November elections while still pressing for their legislative priorities.

One organization, the Partnership for a New American Economy, praised all the bills introduced this session: Smith’s, Schumer and Lofgren’s, plus another by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that mimics Smith’s bill.

“The four sponsors come from both parties and both houses of Congress, showing that there is broad bipartisan support for STEM reform,” the group said in a statement issued Tuesday. “The Partnership is optimistic that STEM legislation based on these four bills can be quickly passed by both houses and signed into law by the President.”

The Compete America coalition issued a statement Tuesday by Executive Director Scott Corley, hailing the Smith bill but noting, “we look forward to working in a bipartisan fashion to pass critically needed reform legislation that can be signed into law by the president.”

Most lobbyists say they expect to see the issue addressed in the lame-duck session, and a Senate Democratic leadership aide said having the bills out now may spur action to resolve negotiators’ differences after the elections.

A GOP lobbyist working on the issue said Smith’s measure is not likely to pass before the elections despite this week’s maneuvering.

“Republicans have offered a really good deal,” this lobbyist said. “I think immigration politics is a factor.”

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