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Democrats Face DREAM Dilemma

House Democrats face a dilemma: Should they vote against a new, Republican version of the DREAM Act?

Top Democrats worry that an effort by Republican leaders to move a new version of the DREAM Act will undercut their push for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. And without Democratic votes, the Republican bill would likely fail. But the risk for Democrats is if they block a partial win on immigration — even as a bid to get to a conference with the Senate — the overhaul efforts could fall apart altogether.

In the words of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a key player in immigration discussions on Capitol Hill, blocking the bill would be a “dangerous game.”

“I’m no Mother Teresa. I play politics, just like everyone else, but on this issue, my God,” the Florida Republican said last week.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte are quietly drafting the KIDS Act, which would provide legal status for the children of illegal immigrants — the “DREAMers.”

It may have a different name, but the two Virginia Republicans have signaled that their measure will include elements of the 2010 DREAM Act, which House Democrats put on the floor in the waning days of their majority and which only eight Republicans supported.

If it does look similar to that iteration, how could Democrats not endorse it?

So far, Democrats have promised not to compromise on any immigration overhaul until they get their bottom line — a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But with something like the KIDS Act, the scheme could backfire.

“Washington Democrats would look deeply hypocritical,” one House Republican leadership aide said.

Democrats could also be criticized by the GOP for blocking what could end up being the only opportunity in the 113th Congress to address, in any form, the question of legal status for undocumented immigrants. Many House Republicans still resist legislation to provide a path to legal status or citizenship for all, but many have begun to at least warm to helping the “DREAMers.”

For Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., it seems that the gambit of putting Democrats in a difficult spot has been the Republican plan all along.

“This piecemeal approach is only going to debilitate the Democrats in the long term,” Grijalva said. “We’re going to have to fight battles on the bad ones and we’re going to have to deal with the contradictions of voting against something we already passed and supported.

“[Republicans] could say, ‘Look, we tried to do something, and they didn’t want to do it,’” he predicted.

In the days following the announcement that a Cantor-Goodlatte bill was in the works, senior House Democrats were careful to temper expectations, giving responses that vacillated between “let’s wait and see” to incredulity that the GOP would offer a bill that could be anything remotely palatable.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, said he needed to read the bill before making any decisions.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., another leading voice in the House for an immigration rewrite, said she would withhold judgment as well, though she conceded that it made her nervous that the measure was being drafted without Democratic input.

“Anything that moves us along we’d love to see, but it should be real,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California. “If they’re going to talk about doing something for DREAMers that’s short of even what the president did, come on. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, it’s so yesterday, and so we hope [Republicans] are prepared to join us in today’s world and not talk about the 20th century.”

Others were even more dismissive. One Democratic leadership aide said the bill appeared to be nothing more than “a wolf in sheep’s clothes.”

Another aide said in an email that, “based on Goodlatte’s comments, the legislation he is envisioning is too limited, either in the context of DREAM Act related legislation itself, or more importantly, the larger goal of providing a comprehensive immigration bill that the American people expect for the House to pass, etc.”

At a news conference on July 19, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pointed out that the DREAMers themselves were in opposition to the bill.

On Monday, the day before the House Judiciary Committee’s scheduled hearing on the issue, activists convened a conference call to “reject GOP attempts to push the DREAM Act without citizenship for the rest of the community.”

“You’re going to have young people that are going to be thankful and at the same time they’re going to wonder why you treat the parents in such a cruel way,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., who, along with Becerra, Diaz-Balart and Lofgren, is part of the bipartisan “gang of seven” that’s working to produce a comprehensive House immigration bill.

“If it’s part of a greater series of proposals that come together to make comprehensive immigration reform, it’s fine,” Gutierrez continued. “I see a glass that’s getting half full, a good step in the right direction, [but] we’re about three years too late.”

David Harrison contributed to this report.