Congress at Odds over Immigration Legislation

House Speaker Dennis Hastert announces plans to consider a Senate version of immigration reform. Meanwhile, Republican congressional leaders call special hearings to discuss the measures.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This is about the time the House and Senate were supposed to be working out their differences on immigration. Instead, Republican leaders in the House have announced a round of public hearings. They want further study of an immigration bill passed in the other chamber. That tactical move is significant because it means members will be talking, not agreeing on legislation, which means the immigration overhaul could be doomed for this year. One big disagreement is what to do about millions of illegal immigrants.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been following this story and joins us now. Jennifer, good morning.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's going on?

LUDDEN: Well, it sounds like the House leaders are saying we think we've got the public on our side, we're not budging. We're not about to compromise. The House, you recall, wants an enforcement only bill. The Senate has passed a bill that has a lot of beefed up enforcement - interior and at the border - but it would also have a guest worker program, and it would legalize millions of illegal immigrants here already. And yesterday, we heard House Speaker Dennis Hastert's spokesman call that Senate bill the Kennedy bill, ignoring that it has a lot of bi-partisan support, and support from President Bush. For those with political ears, it sounded like the campaign has begun, and House Republicans are going to go out and label this legislation they see as amnesty as a Democratic bill.

INSKEEP: The key is they're just not comfortable with the idea of giving any kind of break to illegal immigrants.

LUDDEN: No, and they will tell you that that's what the public feels as well. You know, I think the idea is to turn these public hearings around the country - a very unusual move, by the way - to kind of turn them into rallies against this bill. The idea being that the Senate's going to either have to cave, or the entire thing will just die for this year. And, you know, the House is getting this confidence from public feedback. I mean, the word after the spring break in Congress was that all the Senators who had voted for this sweeping, comprehensive, bi-partisan immigration overhaul were chastised when they went back home to their districts, and those who voted against it got pats on the back.

INSKEEP: Well, those Senators who supported the legislation were on the same side as President Bush. Are they wavering in that support now?

LUDDEN: Well, it does look like a slap on the face. You know, the Senate bill in many ways embraces the approach that President Bush has had on immigration for years, since he was a governor back in Texas. In 1994, if you recall back then, he was setting himself apart from California's then Republican Governor Pete Wilson. He was - Wilson was leading this campaign to cut off public services for undocumented worker. And after that, Wilson was, you know, repudiated for alienating California's Hispanics, and pushing them into the arms of Democrats. Things changed in Washington. Wilson's now seen as a hero in some quarters, and he's been here in Washington in recent days meeting with House members and conservative groups on immigration.

INSKEEP: Well, what do we make of this now, Jennifer? Last year, the president's top priority was Social Security, changes to the Social Security system. That went nowhere. This year his top priority appeared to be immigration, and now that seems to be - for the moment - going nowhere.

LUDDEN: Yeah, another failure for the White House, it would seem, which you would imagine would give a Republican-run Congress a moment of pause. But, remember, President Bush's ratings are quite low, and, you know, for some House Republicans that are facing reelection this fall, it just might not be a bad thing to be seen distancing one's self from President Bush. I know the White House spokesman has said the president remains undeterred in his efforts to get legislation on immigration this year. The president himself is in Vienna. He's in Europe this week. He'll be back in a few days, and he might have something more to say about this.

INSKEEP: I'm reminded of 1994, when Democrat's were in control. Their big priority was healthcare. They ended up passing nothing. And it makes you wonder how this is going to affect Republicans this fall, if they have no legislation to campaign on either way.

LUDDEN: Yeah, there's some feeling that nothing is better than a bad something. There's also a feeling - the scenario that, you know, maybe the House will push the Senate's hand, and if they can get the Senate to vote on more enforcement measures - or even bring a bill - a whole bill that would be only enforcement. A lot of Senators, even Democratic Senators, might have a hard time voting against that.

INSKEEP: Jennifer, thanks very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

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