House conservatives to push own immigration agenda

Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES - Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), right, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) speak about immigration during a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Influential House conservatives signaled Thursday that they will pursue their own course on revising the nation’s immigration laws, a move that some lawmakers warned could derail a comprehensive overhaul that President Obama has made a top priority for his second term.

A week after a bipartisan Senate group introduced an 844-page immigration proposal backed by the White House, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he would chart a narrower path by introducing several small-scale immigration proposals this week that will begin months of negotiations over proposals from House members and groups.

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The announcement was the latest indication of the widening battle among Republicans over what to do about the country’s immigration system and marks perhaps the most serious political challenge to emerge.

Leading conservatives have begun to seek ways to delay and, potentially, defeat the push for the legislation, which includes a path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants. Goodlatte’s measures are expected to be more conservative than those included in the bipartisan Senate deal.

The critics’ strategy has come into increasing focus since the Senate plan became public last week, with groups and lawmakers on the right vowing to draw out the debate and offer time for opposition to grow. The emerging coalition is working to step up the political pressure on the measure’s most prominent Republican sponsor, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a potential presidential contender in 2016.

“This process can be long, but it allows every representative and senator to have their constituents’ voices heard,” said Goodlatte, a former immigration lawyer who opposes allowing a path to citizenship. “And by taking a fine-toothed comb through each of the individual issues within the larger immigration debate, it will help us get a better bill that will benefit Americans and provide a workable immigration system.”

The split within the GOP’s conservative wing has set up a difficult political calculation for House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), who must decide whether to risk angering the Republican base or allow extended debate that could imperil the legislation. Thursday’s developments indicate that Boehner has decided to let the issue play out rather than pushing for a deal closer to the emerging Senate agreement.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the speaker commended Goodlatte for his work and added: “It is crucial that every member . . . and the American people have their voices heard.”

The move alarmed Democrats, who have hoped that the chances are good for broad immigration legislation because GOP leaders want to expand the party’s appeal among Latinos, who overwhelmingly backed Obama last fall. ­Immigration opponents defeated similar legislation in the Senate in 2007 by delaying and amending it.

In recent days, Rubio has been pressing his case for a comprehensive plan in interviews with conservative talk show hosts. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee, joined Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) in Chicago this week to tout the bipartisan efforts.

But conservative stalwarts, including the Heritage Foundation and National Review magazine, are mounting heavy resistance to what they have labeled government-backed “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

Heritage, led by former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea party leader once closely aligned with Rubio, is preparing to release a study that is expected to criticize the Senate plan as excessively expensive, partly because it would allow more immigrants to rely on government programs. Supporters of reform dispute that conclusion.

“We want immigration reform, but we don’t think you have to do that through some kind of blanket amnesty,” DeMint said in an interview.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), both members of the bipartisan group, said Thursday that they hope the proposal will win majority support from both parties in the Senate, thus putting more pressure on the House.

In addition to a path to citizenship, the Senate proposal calls for increased security along borders and in workplaces, new visa programs for low-skilled and high-tech workers, and the reduction of some family-based visas. A bipartisan group of House members is negotiating a similar comprehensive package with a 15-year path to citizenship.

Obama has deferred to the Senate group over the past two months, hoping that bipartisan momentum would help prevent the pitfalls that sank his gun-control legislation this month.

But on Thursday, appearing in Dallas at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Obama noted Bush’s support for immigration reform and made a pointed reference to Boehner, who was in the audience.

“Even though comprehensive immigration reform has taken a little longer than any of us expected,” Obama said, “I am hopeful that this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today, that we bring it home for our families and our economy and our security.”

Conservative criticism has been focused most heavily in recent days on Rubio, a tea party favorite who was helped into office by DeMint, one of the leading critics of an immigration deal.

DeMint said in an interview this week that he remains a supporter in general of Rubio. But he added that the senator’s immigration views do not match the views he thought they shared.

Rubio has tried to walk a fine line on immigration, emphasizing that he supports a deliberate process that allows time for debate over the Senate group’s legislation.

In a statement Thursday, the senator said he would examine Goodlatte’s immigration proposals — which focus on visas for foreign agriculture workers and employment verification systems — to determine whether they offer ideas that the Senate can incorporate in its bill.

“These House measures are important starting points for the debate that will take place there,” Rubio said.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, predicted that Goodlatte’s approach will make it harder for Boehner and Ryan to move forward on a bipartisan approach.

“While modernizers want the Republican Party to achieve a major policy victory and regain its electoral competitiveness with Latino voters, Goodlatte’s move seems intent on dooming both,” Sharry said.

Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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