Congress Returns to Debate Immigration Bill

Congress is back in session and backers of competing House and Senate immigration bills are back on Capitol Hill. The two sides remain far apart.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News it's DAY TO DAY. In Washington House leaders are about to attack their brothers and sisters across the capital. They've announced new hearings where they will say what is wrong the Senate Immigration Bill. That's a bill also favored by President Bush. We have more now from NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter Chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he would also Chair the Conference Committee that would iron out the differences between the House and Senate's competing immigration bills. But so far, there is no such conference committee. Instead, Specter found himself yesterday in an almost surreal position, presiding over a hearing on a bill the Senate's already passed.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): It would be our preference to be conferring with the House of Representatives on the immigration matter, as opposed to setting aside the month of August for hearings. And I do not believe we are engaging in dual hearings.

WELNA: In fact, this was the second time in less than a week that Specter had held a hearing on the Senate's finished bill. Last week the venue was Philadelphia. It all tit for tat with House Republicans, who had their own hearings last week in California and Texas to pick the Senate's bill apart.

Senator Patrick Leahy is the judiciary panel's top Democrat.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): The lines seem clear. The anti-immigrant faction oppose a fair and comprehensive approach. They seem to abhor establishing a pathway to earn citizenship, and they seem to think it's going to help them in upcoming elections. I would hope not.

WELNA: But in this battle of the bills, House GOP leaders claim to be winning.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): It's clear that Senate Democrats and Republicans alike are moving away from the Reed-Kennedy bill and toward the House position.

WELNA: That's House Majority Leader John Boehner at a news conference that competed with Specter's hearing. It was to announce a series of House hearings on the Senate immigration bill this month, starting with one next week that's been titled Should we Embrace the Senate's Grant of Amnesty to Millions of Illegal Aliens and Repeat the Mistakes of the Immigration and Control Act of 1986?

Rep. BOEHNER: Each of these hearings will be looking at additional provisions in the Reed-Kennedy Bill that raised serious concerns. House Republicans want to enact a strong illegal immigration bill that strongly enforces are border and enforces are immigration laws.

WELNA: That enforcement-only approach was rejected, though, at yesterday's Senate hearing by the Bush administration's star witness, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

Mr. CARLOS GUTIERREZ (U.S. Commerce Secretary): The more this issues becomes one of enforcement, only we are driving them farther and farther underground, and what we want for - even for our national security is to drive them above the shadows so we know who they are.

WELNA: Still, senators from both parties are approaching a possible deal with the House, a compromise immigration bill focusing first on enforcement actions. Here's California Democrat Diane Feinstein.

Senator DIANE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I would be one that would say have the border enforcement go into play and have a brief hiatus for the rest of the bill to go into play.

WELNA: But first another problem must be resolved. The House is using a procedural glitch in the Senate's bill to insist it's not ready to go to conference. And two Republican senators who oppose their own chamber's bill are blocking efforts to fix the glitch. So as the majority party continues its internal struggle, the immigration bill the President called his top priority this year may not be going anywhere before the fall elections. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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