Immigration bill faces major tests Thursday

05/08/2013 7:22 PM

05/08/2013 7:24 PM

The Senate immigration bill will be fed through the grinder Thursday when scores of amendments, from adding rights for gay couples to even more border security, are considered. It’s a crucial start to a process Sen. Marco Rubio and the rest of the Gang of 8 hope will lead to broad support for immigration reform in the full Senate.

But a bigger challenge looms in the Republican-controlled House. Look no further than Florida’s GOP delegation, Rubio admirers who are reluctant to embrace a comprehensive approach or flatly oppose some provisions.

“I’m definitely not for a path to citizenship. It’s breaking the law and we’re rewarding it,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, adding he could support other reforms.

Rep. Trey Radel of Fort Myers said he appreciates the Senate’s bipartisan approach, but referring to the authors, he added, “I am concerned by the way the Gang of 8 is attempting to hand out citizenship like it’s a gift they can pick and choose. Before we talk about a path to anything, I am looking for a commitment to a safe and secure border.”

Rep. Dan Webster of Winter Garden said he’s concerned about provisions that would legalize about 11 million people and allow them to gain citizenship through fines and by waiting up to 13 years. “I’m thinking that through. There are people in their country who are being leapfrogged if we do that.”

Webster said he favors a piecemeal approach over the Senate’s all-in-one bill, which ran 844 pages when introduced April 17. “We’ve already seen what Obamacare did. You write a bill, you’ve got all these rules, regulations and it’s not even able to fulfill half the promises it made. Let’s do every piece right.”

The responses from one of the country’s largest House delegations (17 of the 27 Florida representatives are Republican; the Democrats are supportive of reform) show the challenges that await if the Senate bill passes.

“People have mixed opinions because they’re still not focused on the issue and because of the history that comes with it,” Rubio said in an interview. “But the vast majority of Republicans and conservatives understand that we can’t leave in place what we have now. They are prepared to address the 11 million that are here illegally. The only thing they ask, as a condition of all that, is that we make sure this never ever happens again. And that’s what we have to work toward.”

Rubio, who is fighting conservative opposition and recently said his bill could not pass the House, is supporting amendments that would better ensure border security measures happen before people are set on a path to citizenship.

More than 300 amendments have been offered and it could take a couple weeks for the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote them up or down. One from Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the committee, would allow gay and lesbian citizens to petition for U.S. residency for their partners, which heterosexuals can currently do.

“It will kill the bill,” Rubio said, predicting the loss of Republican support and a break up of a coalition that includes Evangelical leaders who are pressing GOP lawmakers to support the bill.

Rubio got a boost Wednesday with a report from the Social Security Administration that said the bill would have a positive economic effect. Over the next decade, the bill would create 3.22 million jobs and increase GDP by 1.63 percent, according to the analysis. With many immigrants currently working under the table, making them legal taxpayers would help strengthen Social Security, the report said.

Passing the bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate is more a question of how broad the support will be. Rubio and the other authors want a strong showing to send a signal to the House.

But already across the Capitol, there are strong objections to a comprehensive approach. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he wants to take the issue in steps.

“I can’t think of any reason why we need to have 844 pages all at once and say, take it or leave it,” agreed Rep. Rich Nugent of Spring Hill. “You might miss out on the fireworks of final passage doing it a piece at a time, but I think you come up with a much better set of reforms.”

Nugent, echoing many Republicans, said the border is not secure enough and points to promises made — but not kept — during the last major immigration overhaul, in 1986. Democrats dispute this and point to record border security spending and an increasing number of apprehensions, but lawmakers have gone along with calls for more efforts in order to gain Republican support.

Some House advocates would like to see Rubio personally work to win over Republicans in their chamber. “He is a very critical and important part of success,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who is crafting a bipartisan House bill along with Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, who could also play a crucial role.

Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland said he shares Rubio’s goals of a system that is “compassionate and justice-oriented,” particularly fixing a broken visa system and creating a better temporary worker program. He likes giving undocumented residents protections but takes a different approach than the Senate bill on the path to citizenship, saying a less bureaucratic visa would make it easier for them to return home to apply.

Other Florida Republicans are taking the safest approach and saying nothing. A spokeswoman for freshman Rep. Ted Yoho, a tea party aligned representative from Gainesville said, “He is reserving comment right now.”

Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, another freshman associated with the tea party, said in an interview it was too early to take a position on the Senate bill. But he acknowledged a path to citizenship could be a problem. “In terms of converting people who’ve come unlawfully, that’s an issue that is more divisive than the things we know we can do to make the system better.”

Contact Alex Leary at leary@tampabay.com.

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