Congress Duels Publicly over Immigration Overhaul

The House and Senate kick off a series of competing hearings on immigration. Each chamber claims the public will be swayed by its approach to immigration policy. But analysts aren't sure the hearings will be effective.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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In theory, Congress holds hearings so that members can listen and learn. When it comes to immigration today, rival lawmakers are holding rival hearings to call attention to what they already believe.

Republican leaders in the House began field hearings on immigration. They say they want to call public attention to parts of a Senate bill that they find unacceptable. The Senate countered by announcing its own hearings. And the process may prolong a standoff over immigration. Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

Months ago, the House and Senate each passed an immigration bill. The legislation has generated huge street protests among Latinos, electrified grassroots groups on all sides, and consumed hours of media coverage, and yet House Speaker Dennis Hastert says something's missing.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois; Speaker of the United States House of Representatives) The American people need to know what's in the bill, and we need to hear from them directly about it.

LUDDEN: That effort kicks off today in San Diego, where the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation meets. Chairman Ed Royce says the focus will be security.

Representative ED ROYCE: (Republican, California; Chairman, House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation) What's the likelihood of terrorists crossing our southern border? What level of attention and resources are U.S. customs and border protection and other agencies paying to the terrorist threat?

LUDDEN: House majority leader, John Boehner, told reporters future hearings will look at a series of items in the Senate bill that House members oppose and which have received little attention.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio) Mexico would have to be consulted before a construction of a fence over portions of the border were allowed. A guarantee of Social Security benefits would be provided for illegal immigrants for the time they were in the country illegally.

LUDDEN: While the House looks at the threat immigration poses, the Senate plans to highlight how vital foreign workers are to various industries, starting with the hearing today in Philadelphia.

Demetrios Papademetriou, of the Migration Policy Institute, says it's like the tale of two hearings, and each side will probably talk past the other.

Mr. DEMETRIOS PAPADEMETRIOU (President, Migration Policy Institute): This is not about, you know, breaking any new ground, this is not about giving in, this is not about trying to achieve a compromise. This is about trying to strengthen the people who already support the one approach or the other.

LUDDEN: Papademetriou says interest groups are likely to pack the audiences, lending an air of booster-ism to the hearings. But John Gay, who's with the National Restaurant Association and a key supporter of the Senate bill, says it doesn't work that way.

Mr. JOHN GAY (Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy, National Restaurant Association): This is not Jerry Springer where the audience gets to whoop it up and yell and throw chairs and stuff. I mean, Congressional hearings are typically more reserved and are there to elicit information.

LUDDEN: Still, House leaders certainly seem to have this fall's midterm elections in mind. During months of Congressional debate, they referred to the Senate immigration bill by the names of the various Republicans who helped craft it, from McCain to Hagel and Martinez. But listen to what they've been calling it since they announced this new round of hearings

Unidentified Man #1: …they're very concerned about the Reid/Kennedy bill…

Unidentified Woman: …feel good about the Reid/Kennedy bill…

Unidentified Man #2: …if the Kennedy bill should prevail…

Unidentified Man #3: …Americans should know what's in the Reid/Kennedy bill…

LUDDEN: Those names refer to Senate minority leader Harry Reid and Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy. The original bill's driving force, Republican John McCain, of Arizona, insists he's not offended.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): They might want to consider calling it the President Bush bill, because President Bush strongly supports it.

LUDDEN: Both the Senate and House immigration bills are wide-ranging and complex. There's no doubt it would be a good thing to have a public debate on their profound implications and how to work out the sharp differences between them. But with one chamber of Congress considering the security threat immigrants pose and the other exploring the economic benefit they bring, anyone just tuning into the issue might wind up more confused.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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