By MICHAEL DOYLE
Comprehensive immigration reform appears dead for the year, as House Republicans on Thursday announced plans to push ahead with border security measures and leave everything else for another time.
Facing a tight schedule and sharp divisions within their own ranks, GOP leaders will be sticking with border-enforcement priorities that can be passed before the November election.
"The intention of the House is to secure the borders," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Thursday afternoon after meeting with his leadership team. "We need to find the things that we can do to secure the border, before we have a guest-worker program or any other kind of (legalization) program."
The specific proposals including new fencing, stiffer penalties and more Border Patrol agents will be aired next week. In an unusual public relations maneuver, House Republican leaders will sit and listen to testimony offered by the chairmen of House committees that held hearings in August.
The House plans to approve the border measures, some included in annual appropriations bills, before the scheduled Sept. 29 adjournment date.
"We need to solve first problems first," Hastert said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist earlier this week already had conceded it would be "next to impossible" to finish a comprehensive bill by the time lawmakers adjourn and resume campaigning.
"This is something that should not be held hostage to artificial deadlines, of elections or anything else," said Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, a member of the GOP leadership.
Translated politically, Republican Rep. George Radanovich of California said, this means that "the Senate version and the House version are dead."
Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona added that only a "hail Mary" play in the final days might salvage a comprehensive bill.
"It’s very difficult to believe credibly that we can do it," Flake said.
Theoretically, a lame-duck session following the November election could yield a broader bill. Flake noted, though, that GOP leaders won’t definitively declare a comprehensive bill dead for the year because "they want to resist that headline."
Even so, House GOP leaders foreshadowed the decision by devoting August to some 20 hearings largely devoted to bashing the Senate’s comprehensive proposals.
Competing immigration measures passed the House and Senate earlier this year, but no negotiators have been named by either side. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said he will continue talking to his Senate counterparts. It’s unclear whether the Senate would respond to an enforcement-only measure.
For President Bush, the seeming collapse of comprehensive immigration reform is a black eye. After proposing a broad-strokes guest-worker plan in January 2004, then dropping it, and then resurrecting it again this year, Bush had declared immigration reform to be a top priority.
It’s even more aggravating for the farm-worker advocates and farmers. Thousands of immigrant advocates rallied Thursday on the National Mall in hopes of swaying lawmakers, while California farmers will be coming to the Capitol next week.
"It’s been very frustrating," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "The polling numbers indicate that a clear majority wants immigration reform, and here you get the minority shouting down the majority."
Fifty-eight percent of those questioned in June for a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll said they preferred combining a guest-worker program with tougher enforcement, while only 32 percent said they wanted tougher enforcement alone.
The more important split is within the Republican caucus that’s struggling to hold on to a 231-201 House majority.
Agribusiness leaders and the United Farm Workers had been pushing hard for an agricultural guest-worker plan included in the Senate’s comprehensive bill. The plan would have granted legal status for 1.5 million illegal immigrants and streamlined a much-criticized guest-worker program already in use.
The Senate bill includes several other guest-worker, visa and legalization elements. A complicated compromise, authored by Republicans Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, would put many of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants on a path toward legal status.
The House approved a narrower bill last December. It includes plans for an additional 730 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, reinforces staffing at the border and ports-of-entry, and requires employers to verify worker eligibility.
Some of the House’s most controversial proposals, like creating a new felony crime of "illegal presence" in the United States, drew so much heat that they will be dropped.