Senate, House pursue sharply different paths to immigration reform

Senate's bill is sweeping, and it's moving fast. The House so far is taking up immigration reform piecemeal, and is proceeding at a, well, deliberative pace. Why are the approaches are so different?

Susan Walsh/AP/File
In this February photo, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Rep. Goodlatte and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, who chairs the House subcommittee charged specifically with immigration policy, plan to push ahead on immigration reform by focusing on a few specific bills.

Two key House Republicans plan to push ahead on immigration reform by focusing on a few specific bills, keeping the issue before the chamber widely expected to have the hardest time with immigration reform legislation even as the Senate's sweeping, bipartisan bill speeds toward the finish line.   

Whatever their differences in style and substance, though, immigration players in both Senate and House expressed confidence Thursday of approving some kind of reform before the year is out. 

“We do have a broken immigration system, and the House does intend to play a leading role in making sure this is solved,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, whose panel oversees immigration law.

Mr. Goodlatte and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, who chairs the House subcommittee charged specifically with immigration policy, are starting with smaller pieces of the immigration puzzle rather than one overarching bill. They say their committee's members will introduce two stand-alone measures – one on foreign agricultural workers and one to make mandatory an employee verification system known as E-Verify – as a first stab at immigration reform.

That drip-drip-drip approach contrasts markedly with action in the Senate, where two leaders on immigration reform on Thursday offered the hope that their sweeping measure could win significant bipartisan support. Sens. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and John McCain (R) of Arizona argued that it is “very possible” majorities of senators in both parties could support a comprehensive immigration reform solution, leading to a final tally of “ayes” north of 70.  

In that chamber, a bipartisan “gang of eight” senators unveiled a comprehensive reform bill last week, and it has already had three hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Pat Leahy (D) of Vermont, the panel's chairman, started the bill toward the Senate floor on Thursday by scheduling time to amend it in early May when Congress returns from a district work week.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada says the bill could hit the Senate floor for further debate and amendment in June.

At a breakfast with reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, Senators McCain and Schumer said they had taken care to anticipate the needs of their GOP colleagues, stripping from the bill a diversity visa program that conservatives dislike and ensuring that interests of Southern farmers are accommodated. 

“If we were to pass this bill with, say, over 50 Democratic votes ... but only eight or nine Republican votes, it would pass, we would get to 60, But it would bode poorly for [the reform effort in] the House,” Schumer said.

The bill's supporters want a bold, bipartisan Senate vote that will jolt the House, which has been pursuing a more deliberative tack on immigration reform.

The House's go-slow approach is intended to help educate members from districts with tiny minority populations who have never handled immigration issues, as well as to fulfill the promises of Republican House leaders that more bills will follow the standard legislative process, by which more lawmakers have opportunities to contribute. 

The House's path has its critics, of course, who predict that the reform effort will be foiled if it is diverted from a comprehensive track.

“Rep. Goodlatte knows full well there’s a broad bipartisan bill that is likely to pass the Senate and a broad bipartisan bill that is about to be introduced in the House. Rather than truly supporting these measures, he is introducing partisan piecemeal measures that went nowhere in the last Congress,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, in a statement on Thursday.

Goodlatte’s announcement “makes it easier for opponents of broad reform to oppose comprehensive reform while claiming they support something,” Mr. Sharry continued.

Goodlatte repeatedly emphasized on Thursday that his committee is open to an eventual product from the House’s bipartisan immigration negotiating group, the Senate’s eventual product, or somewhere else.

And, he underlines, the goal is not to kill the immigration reform effort. 

“We’re certainly not doing that,” Goodlatte says. “We have been working very hard on this, and we respect the effort of others. But we encourage all of them to be careful, examine the legislation very closely, understand how each component of immigration relates to every other component so we don’t get the law of unintended consequences taking hold in this matter.”

So why go ahead with small pieces of reform, knowing that doing so raises the ire of immigration reformers?

Goodlatte says more than 100 House Republicans have attended GOP education sessions on immigration – but that represents less than half the GOP conference. By introducing pieces of the immigration puzzle one at a time, Goodlatte and Mr. Gowdy believe they can drill down on the specifics of each portion of the immigration system so that their members understand the stakes and potential solutions of each one.

The immigration education sessions have been as well-attended as the information sessions hosted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan during the debt ceiling fight of 2011, but some members are on the sidelines, Gowdy says.Introducing specific bills, Goodlatte says, will underscore the House majority's seriousness about taking on immigration reform and will encourage more members to become engaged. 

“Our function in moving legislation into the committee, so we can look at it and hold legislative hearings on it, [is that doing so] will be a wake-up call to those who haven’t done it, to say, ‘Hey, you better come down and start looking seriously at what we’re doing on immigration,’ ” he says.

In other words, the House, whose bipartisan immigration reform group has yet to produce a bill, needs to keep moving. And it must keep moving, keep educating, keep the debate flowing because of members like Representative Gowdy.

Gowdy, a former prosecutor elected during the tea party wave of 2010 who has a flair for giving booming, emotional speeches on the House floor, noted that Hispanics make up less than 2 percent of the citizens in his district in the Palmetto State. As such, his own constituents are not exactly pushing for him to take up immigration reform. 

But Gowdy says they might appreciate a policy fix that actually solves America’s long-running immigration problem.  

“This is not a political exercise to me,” says Gowdy, “which is why I appreciate so much the approach the chairman [Goodlatte] is taking. I would like a remedy that sustains us for the remainder of my lifetime. So I’m much more interested in a process that is confidence-inspiring than a political remedy.”

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