Republicans block immigration reform

House Republicans on Tuesday put the brakes on immigration reform, saying they won’t begin negotiations with the Senate until they hold town-hall meetings across the country highlighting what they dislike about the Senate’s plan.

While that strategy doesn’t inherently rule out Congress sending President Bush a comprehensive immigration bill, several lawmakers and immigration policy advocates said it makes it very unlikely. Bush has said that he wants to sign immigration reform creating a guest-worker program and addressing the issue of potential citizenship for some of the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants.

“There are policy provisions in that bill that I have concerns about and I suspect others have concerns about,” said Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Providing illegal immigrants the opportunity to have more benefits than American citizens _ in-state tuition as an example _ I think is horrendous. But I just throw that out as one example.”

The field hearings are to be organized by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and the chairmen of seven House committees with some jurisdiction over immigration policy, aides said.

They would begin next month and run through August. That would make September the earliest starting point for conference negotiations. Congress is set to recess in early October.

The Senate plan would allow many illegal immigrants in this country to seek citizenship, and it would establish a guest-worker program to provide cheap labor to American businesses. The House version rejects both of those ideas, beefs up fencing and patrolling at the Mexico border and makes illegal immigration a felony.

Several supporters of the more comprehensive approach reacted angrily to the House leadership’s move.

“Americans don’t want more hearings on immigration reform, they want a bill,” Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who favors the Senate’s approach, said in a prepared statement. “The longer we wait to appoint members to the conference committee, the more difficult it becomes to produce a bill.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., lashed out at Bush, saying his actions don’t match his rhetoric on demanding a comprehensive immigration bill.

“The president can go around giving all the speeches he wants, but let him step in now,” Reid said. “He hasn’t vetoed a single bill. He has complete domination over this Republican Congress. Let him tell us how much he really wants a bill, or is this part of the Orwellian message we continually get out of this administration? He wants an immigration bill, but really he means just the opposite. He doesn’t want one?”

Others in favor of a comprehensive plan, including Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, cooled their heels.

“We can understand why members of Congress want to take a closer look at the issue,” said White House spokesman Alex Conant, “and we’ll continue working with members to see if we can reach a consensus. … We’re not deterred at all.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, predicted the field hearings could push the senators closer to the House’s law-enforcement-only bill, which boosts border security and makes illegal immigration a felony, out of a desire to get something accomplished.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made the opposite prediction. She said slowing down talks until after the election might improve the chances of getting House Republicans to agree to some guest-worker or citizenship provisions.

“I think it is a good idea to let this thing settle for awhile and, if we have to, do it after the election,” she said. “I can’t answer what’s going to happen, but it looks that way.”

The summer field hearings could give members of either party who are facing tough midterm elections a reprieve on one of the nation’s most divisive questions: how to deal with an estimated 12 million immigrants now living here illegally and the call from businesses for more cheap, temporary labor.

The hearings also could give lawmakers in congressional districts whose voters favor a tough-on-illegal-immigrants approach a platform on which to campaign on the issue.

For Republicans, who are polarized on immigration, holding the hearings might fend off criticism that they failed to act on an important issue without highlighting internal party differences, as Democrats have struggled with over what course to take in the Iraq war.

“There’s what Bush and the Senate Republicans endorse. And then it’s quite at odds with what the House passed,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which favors the comprehensive approach. “They’re biding their time with their finger in the wind and hoping if they do something between now and the election they won’t get blamed for doing nothing. It’s quite brilliant and it’s hard to argue against, but what we know is going on is they’re trying to run out the clock.”