Will immigration reform pass? That depends on who you ask

 Senator John McCain (R-AZ) . REUTERS/Samantha Sais
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) . REUTERS/Samantha Sais

The push for comprehensive immigration legislation faces an uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives even as Senate supporters voiced optimism on Thursday for overwhelming backing in that chamber.

As the Democratic Party-controlled Senate pushed ahead on an 844-page bill that aims to rewrite America’s immigration law, the Republican-controlled House was still undecided on how broad of a bill it might consider – or even if it would advance legislation this year.

That was the message delivered Thursday by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who told reporters that he would be introducing a series of individual bills, starting with legislation to help farmers get foreign workers and improving an electronic system to help businesses be sure they are hiring legal workers.

“We have made no decisions about how to proceed,” Goodlatte said at a news conference, adding he did not know whether his committee would try to advance “individual bills or whether it would pertain to a larger bill.”

He did however say that he hoped some sort of legislation could pass in 2013.

Goodlatte’s uncertainty is in contrast to senators who have advanced a comprehensive immigration bill that is expected to be debated next month by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That measure would put the 11 million people living illegally in the United States on a 13-year path to citizenship.

Two authors of that bipartisan bill said on Thursday they are hopeful most Senate Democrats and Republicans will support their White House-backed measure.

“It is very doable,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said of the prospects of attracting wide bipartisan backing. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York agreed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to debate, and most likely amend, the newly introduced bill as Democrats aim to get full Senate approval by late June.

Goodlatte refused to set up any such timetable for House action.

Referring to the November, 2014 congressional elections, the Virginia Republican said: “Election years are more difficult than non-election years” for passing major, controversial legislation. “But I’ll also say that it is far more important that we get this right this time…than live by any particular timetables.”

Similarly, Goodlatte was non-committal when asked whether House legislation would contain provisions letting those who came to the United States illegally or overstayed their visas to eventually become U.S. citizens.

“What exactly can be done there remains to be seen,” Goodlatte said.

On the hot-button issue of potential citizenship for undocumented residents, Goodlatte said: “I prefer not to see a special pathway to citizenship but a status that would give them some kind of legal status.”

A ‘NON-STARTER’

Immigration reform advocates have long insisted that legislation must be addressed in a comprehensive way rather than piecemeal and that the 11 million undocumented immigrants must be “brought out of the shadows” and set onto a road to citizenship. It is a 13-year-long road in the Senate bill that includes the payment of penalties for people who either entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas.

McCain and Schumer, speaking at a breakfast roundtable with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, said legislation without a pathway to citizenship would be a “non-starter.”

They said their aim is to muster strong support, as many as 70 votes in the 100-member Democratic-led chamber, to help the measure’s chances in the Republican-led House.

“It is a balanced bill,” Schumer said. “I’m optimistic it will pass.”

McCain and Schumer drafted the comprehensive measure with six other senators, three Democrats and three Republicans. It would bolster border security, help provide low- and high-skilled workers for businesses and create an earned pathway to U.S. citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

McCain said he called Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, on Wednesday to thank him for publicly voicing support in recent days for comprehensive immigration reform.

“I believe in it,” McCain quoted Ryan as telling him. Ryan is seen as an influential voice among conservatives who could help propel any bill in the House.

Even so, many conservative Republicans question whether any broad immigration legislation should be attempted until further security measures are in place along the southwestern border with Mexico.
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Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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What now for gun control?

 Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, speaks as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., third from left, hugs Carlee Soto, sister of Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto, second from left, and Erica Laffferty, daughter of Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, after a vote on gun legislation on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in Washington. Senate Republicans backed by a small band of rural-state Democrats scuttled the most far reaching gun control legislation in two decades, rejecting calls to tighten background checks on firearms buyers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, speaks as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., third from left, hugs Carlee Soto, sister of Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto, second from left, and Erica Laffferty, daughter of Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, after a vote on gun legislation on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in Washington. Senate Republicans backed by a small band of rural-state Democrats scuttled the most far reaching gun control legislation in two decades, rejecting calls to tighten background checks on firearms buyers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The impassioned push for new gun laws, born from the slaughter of schoolchildren, has collided with the marble-hard realities of Congress.

Just persuading the Senate to debate tougher laws was considered a high hurdle for gun control advocates. They did it with the aid of Newtown, Conn., families, who brought photos and stories of the slain to the Capitol. A series of Senate votes Wednesday marked the biggest moment in nearly two decades for those who want to limit guns in America, and for those who don’t. Gun control failed.

Afterward, President Barack Obama said his administration would do what it can without Congress. And Obama said now that the issue has been revived, it won’t go away.

But it’s unclear what, if anything, comes next in gun politics. A look at the issue:

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THE TRAGEDIES

Twenty children — all first-graders, just 6 or 7 years old — felled by semi-automatic rifle fire within five minutes. Six women — teachers, aides and the principal — gunned down. The shooter also took his own life and, before heading to Sandy Hook Elementary School, killed his mother.

The carnage in Newtown shocked a nation and its leaders. Yet, a shooting takes multiple lives at a high school or college nearly every year. Almost two years before Newtown, a congresswoman was wounded in a deadly attack that led Obama to call for “a new discussion” of gun laws. He didn’t press the issue then.

Gun rights supporters say appealing to emotion after such tragedies leads to misguided policies that make it harder for law-abiding Americans to protect themselves. The nation should focus on protecting its schools, the National Rifle Association says.

Among the mass shootings that have most influenced the gun debate:

— July 2012 in Aurora, Colo.: A gunman sprays bullets into a packed theater on the opening night of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.” Twelve people are killed, 70 injured. James Holmes, 25, is awaiting trial, with prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

— January 2011 in Tucson, Ariz.: Six people are fatally shot and 13 injured at a meet-and-greet event outside a supermarket for then-U.S Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She has become an advocate for stricter gun laws as she recovers from a devastating head wound. Jared L. Loughner, 24, pleaded guilty and is serving life in prison.

— November 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas: Thirteen soldiers and civilians are killed and more than two dozen wounded when a gunman walks into the Soldier Readiness Processing Center and opens fire. Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan is awaiting trial.

— April 2007 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg: In the deadliest U.S. school shooting, student Seung-Hui Cho kills 32 students and faculty in a dorm and a classroom building, then commits suicide.

— April 1999 in Littleton, Colo.: Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold kill 12 classmates and a teacher and wound 26 others before killing themselves in the school’s library.

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OBAMA’S PLAN

Obama said the Newtown horror obligated the nation to finally act to reduce gun violence. He wanted Congress to:

—Extend federal background checks to almost all gun sales.

—Pass a new, stronger ban on the sale on some semi-automatic rifles considered “assault weapons.”

—Ban the sale of ammunition magazines with more than 10 rounds.

—Provide money to help more schools add police officers, psychologists, social workers or counselors.

—Help more people get mental health care.

Obama also made some changes by executive order, including:

—Steps to encourage states to submit more data to the federal background check system.

—Directing government agencies to study causes and prevention of gun violence. A law banning the use of federal money to “advocate or promote gun control” had squelched federal research.

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WHERE IT STANDS NOW

The major components of Obama’s plan — background checks, the assault weapons ban, the limit on ammunition magazines — were quashed by the Senate.

Some members of his own Democratic Party, which controls the Senate, opposed the measures. Republicans were nearly united against them.

At a news conference with the president, Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year-old son, Daniel, in the Newtown shooting, said the families would return home “disappointed but not defeated.”

Obama urged voters to pressure Congress on the issue. “This effort is not over,” he said, and change will come “so long as the American people don’t give up on it.”

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SHIFTING OPINIONS

Public support for tightening gun laws has dropped off as the Dec. 14 school shooting slips further into the past.

One month after the Newtown attack, 58 percent of Americans said they supported stricter gun laws, an AP-GfK poll found. This month, support was 49 percent.

Some specific gun proposals still have strong appeal, however, polling shows.

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BACKGROUND CHECKS

They’re hugely popular: More than 8 in 10 Americans support requiring background checks for buyers at gun shows, according to the AP-GfK poll in January. So closing the “gun-show loophole” looked like a potential place where gun control Democrats and gun rights Republicans might agree.

Two senators, Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, tried to bridge the divide with a compromise that would subject buyers at gun shows and on the Internet to the checks but exempt noncommercial transactions like sales between friends and family. On Wednesday their measure was supported by a majority of senators but fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance.

The existing system, created under the 1993 Brady law, requires licensed gun dealers to submit a buyer’s name before completing the sale. Convicted criminals and people who have been declared by a judge to be “mentally defective” are among those barred from buying a gun. Private gun owners and sellers at gun shows don’t have to run the federal checks.

It’s unclear how many buyers avoid scrutiny this way. Gun control advocates often claim that about 40 percent of guns are sold without the checks. But that’s based on a survey from 20 years ago, when the background check system was just starting, and it was considered a rough approximation.

A few states have their own, more comprehensive background check requirements.

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MENTAL ILLNESS

Another area of public agreement: Eight in 10 Americans want more done to prevent people who are mentally ill from buying a gun, according to Pew Research Center polling.

One way is to do a better job of getting treatment to people who need it. Obama wants to spend $235 million in federal money to identify and treat mental illness, especially in young people, and to study how to prevent shootings. The idea has appeal on both sides of the gun control debate, as well as among advocates for the mentally ill, although they stress that most people who need care aren’t violent.

U.S. law bans gun sales to people who have been involuntarily committed or formally found to be dangerously mentally ill by a court or similar authority. But the federal background check system is weakened by paltry information from some states. Obama says he will do more to encourage states to share their mental health records.

A vote on a bipartisan proposal for improving mental health programs was set for Thursday in the Senate.

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ASSAULT WEAPONS

One of the most-discussed gun control ideas — reviving the 1994 ban on sales of “assault weapons” — couldn’t get anywhere in Congress.

A majority of Americans — 55 percent — surveyed for the AP-GfK poll said they favored a ban on military-style, rapid-fire guns; about a third opposed it. Feelings run strong on both sides. Backers of gun rights are especially active lobbyists, however. These guns are popular with recreational shooters and people who consider them a menacing choice for home defense.

Other knocks against the proposal: Defining an “assault weapon” has always been tricky, and there’s scant evidence that the old ban worked.

Under the now-expired law, some semi-automatic rifles and pistols were banned by name, including the Uzi, the AK-47 and the Colt AR-15, which is similar to the military’s standard issue M16. Others were banned because they had a combination of characteristics listed in the law.

Manufacturers simply skirted the ban by producing guns under new names or by making simple design changes.

The 1994 law wouldn’t have covered the military-looking Bushmaster .223 rifles used in the Colorado theater and Connecticut school shootings, even if the ban were still in place. The old law did apply to another aspect of those shootings — high-capacity magazines.

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HIGH-CAPACITY MAGAZINES

The Senate also rejected Obama’s call to revive the expired ban on sales of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

These devices feed bullets into the firing chamber automatically for rapid shooting. The larger the capacity, the more bullets a shooter can fire without pausing. In an attack, a killer who stops to reload might give victims a chance to flee or fight back.

Police said Adam Lanza came to Sandy Hook Elementary with several 30-round magazines and fired more than 150 shots. The shooter in the Colorado theater used a 100-round magazine, police said.

Half of Americans support a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines, according to the AP-GfK poll. Nearly 4 in 10 oppose it.

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PROTECTING SCHOOLS

The National Rifle Association, the lead group lobbying against gun control, wants to keep the focus on protecting students at school.

A task force created by the gun rights group recommends that schools use specially trained armed guards or police officers to protect students, if the local community agrees. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre says, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The NRA task force also called for private funding and federal grants to help pay for increased security. And it says schools need to improve their ability to assess threats and handle warnings of violent or antisocial behavior by students.

Obama has proposed spending more federal money to help schools improve safety by adding specially trained police officers and counselors and improving safety planning.

The public is about evenly divided on the idea of requiring an armed guard in every school, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll in March.

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THE TOLL OF GUNS

Obama says he wants to address not only mass shootings but also “the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every single day.”

The United States logs more than 30,000 gun deaths per year. The majority — about 6 out of 10 — are suicides. In calling for better gun control, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has talked about the death of his father, who committed suicide with a gun in 1972.

Homicides account for more than 10,000 deaths each year, according to National Center for Health Statistics data through 2009. Roughly 2 out of 3 murders are committed with a gun, FBI statistics show.

Gun advocates note that federal statistics don’t capture how many lives are saved when people use firearms to protect themselves — a number that researchers have found difficult to pin down.

The overall rate of violent crime, including crimes with firearms, has dropped sharply over the past two decades in the U.S.

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SECOND AMENDMENT

It’s the Constitution’s Second Amendment that guarantees a right to guns.

It says, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Exactly what that means has been debated for decades. In 2008 the Supreme Court ruled that it gives individuals a right to own firearms, even if they’re not in a militia. But the justices also have signaled that some regulation of guns can be constitutional.

Which laws pass muster? The court has yet to say. Several states have gun restrictions that are tougher than U.S. law and are being challenged in court. Those cases should lead to more clarity.

Meanwhile, Connecticut, New York, Colorado and Maryland are tightening their gun laws in response to the recent mass shootings.

The January AP-GfK poll found 51 percent of Americans felt laws limiting gun ownership infringed on the public’s right to bear arms; 41 percent said they do not.

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WHO OWNS GUNS?

About a third of Americans say someone in their household owns a gun, according to an AP-GfK poll. But gun ownership is declining. Back in 1977, about half of households had a gun, the General Social Survey found.

Protection is the top reason people give, according to a Pew Research Center poll. About half of gun owners cited safety; about a third said hunting.

Every state but Illinois and the District of Columbia issue permits to allow people to carry concealed weapons under certain conditions. For example, the gun owner might need to pass a background check first. Some states require safety classes or a license that’s hard to get. The Senate on Wednesday rejected a Republican plan to make states recognize the permits issued by other states.

Federal laws prevent the government from tracking how many guns are sold every year and who buys them, so there are no definitive statistics.

Roughly 310 million guns were owned or available for sale in the United States in 2009, according to a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That’s about 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns.

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Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell and Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ConnieCass

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Immigration bill could exclude many from citizenship

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference on immigration legislation with a members of a bipartisan group of leading senators, including, from left, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., in Washington.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference on immigration legislation with a members of a bipartisan group of leading senators, including, from left, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., in Washington.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

A bipartisan immigration bill soon to be introduced in the Senate could exclude hundreds of thousands of immigrants here illegally from ever becoming U.S. citizens, according to a Senate aide with knowledge of the proposals.

The bill would bar anyone who arrived in the U.S. after Dec. 31, 2011, from applying for legal status and ultimately citizenship, according to the aide, who spoke on condition because the proposals have not been made public.

It also would require applicants to document that they were in the country before Dec. 31, 2011, have a clean criminal record and show enough employment or financial stability that they’re likely to stay off welfare.

Those requirements could exclude hundreds of thousands of the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally from the path to citizenship envisioned by the bill, the aide said.

Although illegal immigration to the U.S. has been dropping, many tens of thousands still arrive each year, so the cutoff date alone could exclude a large number of people. That may come as a disappointment to immigrant rights groups that had been hoping that anyone here as of the date of enactment of the bill could be able to become eligible for citizenship.

But Republicans in the immigration negotiating group had sought strict criteria on legal enforcement and border security as the price for their support for a path to citizenship, which is still opposed by some as amnesty.

The new details emerged as negotiators reached agreement on all the major elements of the sweeping legislation.

After months of closed-door negotiations, the “Gang of Eight” senators, equally divided between the two parties, had no issues left to resolve in person, and no more negotiating sessions were planned. Remaining details were left to aides, who were at work completing drafts of the bill.

“All issues that rise to the member level have been dealt with,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Thursday. “All that is left is the drafting.”

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said the bill probably would be introduced on Tuesday.

The landmark legislation would overhaul legal immigration programs, require all employers to verify the legal status of their workers, greatly boost border security and put millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally on a 13-year path to citizenship. A top second-term priority for President Barack Obama, it would enact the biggest changes to U.S. immigration law in more than a quarter-century.

Deals gelled over the past two days on a new farm-worker program and visas for high-tech workers, eliminating the final substantive disputes on the legislation.

Next will come the uncertain public phase as voters and other lawmakers get a look at the measure. Already, some conservatives have made it clear their opposition will be fierce.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., complained that the bill would ensure that millions get amnesty but border enforcement never happens.

“This is also why it is so troubling that (Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.) has rejected the GOP request for multiple hearings and that members of the Gang of Eight have publicly announced their intention to oppose any amendments,” Sessions said in a statement Thursday. “To proceed along these lines is tantamount to an admission that the bill is not workable and will not withstand public scrutiny.”

Pro-immigrant activists also were gearing up for a fight even as they expressed optimism that this time, Congress will succeed in passing an immigration overhaul bill. Many of those pushing for the legislation were involved in the last major immigration fight, in 2007, when a bill came close on the Senate floor but ultimately failed.

“I think it’s a pretty remarkable breakthrough that eight ideologically diverse senators are working so well together on such a challenging issue,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group advocating for an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. “And I think the fact that they’ve come up with a bill they can all support and defend suggests that it’s the heart of a bill that will finally pass into law.”

Once the legislation is introduced, it will be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday and likely will begin to amend and vote on the bill the week of May 6. From there, the bill would move to the Senate floor.

Both in committee and on the floor, the bill could change in unpredictable ways as senators try to amend it from the left and the right. The Gang of Eight — Schumer, Durbin, and Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. — have discussed banding together to defeat amendments that could significantly alter the legislation.

Even more uncertain, though, is the Republican-led House, where a bipartisan group is also crafting an immigration bill, though timing of its release is uncertain. Many conservatives in the House remain opposed to citizenship for immigrants who have been living in the U.S. illegally.

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Follow Erica Werner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericawerner
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Look for a loud, raucous debate on immigration reform

Sen. John McCain (CBS News)
Sen. John McCain (CBS News)

Senators writing a comprehensive immigration bill hope to finish their work this week, opening what’s sure to be a raucous public debate over measures to secure the border, allow tens of thousands of foreign workers into the country and grant eventual citizenship to the estimated 11 million people living here illegally.

Already negotiators are cautioning of struggles ahead for an issue that’s defied resolution for years. An immigration deal came close on the Senate floor in 2007 but collapsed amid interest-group bickering and an angry public backlash.

“There will be a great deal of unhappiness about this proposal because everybody didn’t get what they wanted,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leader of the eight senators negotiating the legislation, said Sunday. “There are entrenched positions on both sides of this issue.”

“There’s a long road,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., appearing alongside McCain on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” ”There are people on both sides who are against this bill, and they will be able to shoot at it.”

Schumer, McCain and their “Gang of Eight” already missed a self-imposed deadline to have their bill ready in March, but Schumer said he hoped that this week, it will happen.

“All of us have said that there will be no agreement until the eight of us agree to a big, specific bill, but hopefully we can get that done by the end of the week,” said Schumer.

Schumer, McCain and other negotiators are trying to avoid mistakes of the past.

A painstaking deal reached a week ago knit together traditional enemies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, in an accord over a new low-skilled worker program. The proposal would allow up to 200,000 workers a year into the country to fill jobs in construction, hospitality, nursing homes and other areas where employers say they have a difficult time hiring Americans.

The negotiators also have pledged to move the bill through the Judiciary Committee and onto the floor for debate by the full Senate according to what’s known in chamber jargon as “regular order,” trying to head off complaints from conservatives that the legislation is being rammed through.

A deal on immigration is a top second-term priority for President Barack Obama, and his senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday that the bill being developed in the Senate is consistent with Obama’s approach — even though the Senate plan would tie border security to a path to citizenship in a manner Obama administration officials have criticized.

Pfeiffer didn’t answer directly when asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether Obama would sign legislation making a path to citizenship contingent on first securing the border. But he suggested Obama was supportive of the Senate plan.

“What has been talked about in the Gang of Eight proposal is 100 percent consistent with what the president is doing so we feel very good about it,” Pfeiffer said. “And they are looking at it in the right way.”

Sticking points remain. There’s still disagreement over plans for a new program to bring in agriculture workers, who weren’t included in the deal struck between the chamber and AFL-CIO. The agriculture industry is at odds with United Farm Workers over wages.

But overall, all involved are optimistic that the time is ripe to make the biggest changes to the nation’s immigration laws in more than a quarter-century. For many Republicans, their loss in the November presidential election, when Latino and Asians voters backed Obama in big numbers, resonates as evidence that they must confront the immigration issue.

“The politics of self-deportation are behind us,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., referring to GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s suggestion in the presidential campaign. “It was an impractical solution. Quite frankly, it’s offensive. Every corner of the Republican Party, from libertarians to the (Republican National Committee), House Republicans and the rank-and-file Republican Party member, is now understanding there has to be an earned pathway to citizenship.”

After consideration by the Judiciary Committee, floor action could start in the Senate in May, Schumer said.

Meanwhile two lawmakers involved in writing a bipartisan immigration bill in the House, Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., sounded optimistic that they, too, would have a deal soon that could be reconciled with the Senate agreement.

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Key players believe immigration deal is near

Sen. Marco Rubio  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Sen. Marco Rubio (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Big business and big labor have settled on a political framework for an immigration overhaul. Now, the lawmakers writing bipartisan legislation need to resolve the nitty-gritty — and keep their parties’ political flanks mollified.

Business and labor negotiators late last week agreed on a deal that would allow tens of thousands of low-skilled workers into the country and pay them fair wages. It was a last major sticking point before the deal goes to the eight senators — four Democrats, four Republicans — to sign off on the details and propose legislation. They are looking to set in motion the most dramatic changes to the faltering U.S. immigration system in more than two decades.

“There are a few details yet. But conceptually, we have an agreement between business and labor, between ourselves that has to be drafted,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The so-called Gang of Eight’s plan would provide a new class of worker visas for low-skilled workers, secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here.

“With the agreement between business and labor, every major policy issue has been resolved,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who brokered the labor-business deal.

But that effort hasn’t taken the form of a bill and the senators searching for a compromise haven’t met about the potential breakthrough. They plan to introduce their framework when they return from recess the week of April 8 and move quickly to schedule a vote.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said the hard part is done.

“That doesn’t mean we’ve crossed every ‘i’ or dotted every ‘t,’ or vice versa,” Flake said.

But even as the final stages of talks begin, one member of the group urged colleagues not to get too far ahead of themselves. Just before lawmakers began appearing on Sunday shows to discuss the breakthrough, Sen. Marco Rubio warned he was not ready to lend his name — and political clout — to such a deal without hashing out the details.

“Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature,” said Rubio, a Florida Republican who is among the lawmakers working to write the legislation.

Rubio, a Cuban-American who is weighing a presidential bid in 2016, is a leading figure inside his party. Lawmakers will be closely watching any deal for his approval, and his skepticism about the process did little to encourage optimism.

Rubio, who is the group’s emissary to conservatives, called the agreement “a starting point” but noted 92 senators from 43 states haven’t yet been involved in the process.

That’s where figures such as Rubio and assistant Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois come in. Both will be able to give political cover to — or coax — members of their party who were not involved in drafting this agreement that could allow an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to earn U.S. citizenship.

“As to the 11 million, they’ll have a pathway to citizenship, but it will be earned, it will be long, and it will be hard, and I think it is fair,” Graham said.

A week ago, such a compromise seemed impossible.

Then the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO labor coalition reached its deal late Friday to allow tens of thousands of low-skilled workers into the country to fill jobs in construction, restaurants and hotels.

Schumer negotiated the deal between Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka during a late Friday phone call. Under the compromise, the government would create a new “W” visa for low-skilled workers, who would earn the same wages paid to Americans or the prevailing wages for the industry they’re working in, whichever is higher. The Labor Department would determine prevailing wage based on customary rates in specific localities, so it would vary from city to city.

The detente between the powerful business lobbying group and the nation’s leading labor federation still needs senators’ approval, including a nod from Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whose previous efforts came up short. He has returned to the negotiating table yet again.

The immigration debate already has President Barack Obama’s attention.

“This is a legacy item for him,” said David Axelrod, a longtime political confidant of Obama. “There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

Graham was interviewed Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Schumer, Flake and Axelrod appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
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Deal between big business, labor clears way for new immigration bills

Sen. Chuck Schumer (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Big business and labor have struck a deal on a new low-skilled worker program, removing the biggest hurdle to completion of sweeping immigration legislation allowing 11 million illegal immigrants eventual U.S. citizenship, labor and Senate officials said Saturday.

The agreement was reached in a phone call late Friday night with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue, and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who’s been mediating the dispute.

The deal resolves disagreements over wages for the new workers and which industries would be included. Those disputes had led talks to break down a week ago, throwing into doubt whether Schumer and seven other senators crafting a comprehensive bipartisan immigration bill would be able to complete their work as planned.

The deal must still be signed off on by the other senators working with Schumer, including Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, but that’s expected to happen, according to a person with knowledge of the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity. With the agreement in place, the senators are expected to unveil their legislation the week of April 8. Their measure would secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here.

It’s a major second-term priority of President Barack Obama’s and would usher in the most dramatic changes to the nation’s faltering immigration system in more than two decades.

“The strength of the consensus across America for just reform has afforded us the momentum needed to forge an agreement in principle to develop a new type of employer visa system,” Trumka said in a statement late Saturday. “We expect that this new program, which benefits not just business, but everyone, will promote long overdue reforms by raising the bar for existing programs.”

Schumer said: “This issue has always been the dealbreaker on immigration reform, but not this time.”

The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, longtime antagonists over temporary worker programs, had been fighting over wages for tens of thousands of low-skilled workers who would be brought in under the new program to fill jobs in construction, hotels and resorts, nursing homes and restaurants, and other industries.

Under the agreement, a new “W” visa program would go into effect beginning April 1, 2015, according to an AFL-CIO fact sheet.

In year one of the program, 20,000 workers would be allowed in; in year two, 35,000; in year three, 55,000; and in year four, 75,000. Ultimately the program would be capped at 200,000 workers a year, but the number of visas would fluctuate, depending on unemployment rates, job openings, employer demand and data collected by a new federal bureau pushed by the labor movement as an objective monitor of the market. One-third of all visas in any year would go to businesses with under 25 workers.

A “safety valve” would allow employers to exceed the cap if they can show need and pay premium wages, but any additional workers brought in would be subtracted from the following year’s cap.

The workers could move from employer to employer and would be able to petition for permanent residency after a year, and ultimately seek U.S. citizenship. Neither is possible for temporary workers now.

The new program would fill needs employers say they have that are not currently met by U.S. immigration programs. Most industries don’t have a good way to hire a steady supply of foreign workers because there’s one temporary visa program for low-wage nonagricultural workers but it’s capped at 66,000 visas per year and is only supposed to be used for seasonal or temporary jobs.

Business has sought temporary worker programs in a quest for a cheaper workforce, but labor has opposed the programs because of concerns over working conditions and the effect on jobs and wages for U.S. workers. The issue helped sink the last major attempt at immigration overhaul in 2007, which the AFL-CIO opposed partly because of temporary worker provisions, and the flare-up earlier this month sparked concerns that the same thing would happen this time around. Agreement between the two traditional foes is one of many indications that immigration reform has its best chance in years in Congress this year.

After apparent miscommunications earlier this month between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce on the wage issue, the deal resolves it in a way both sides are comfortable with, officials said.

Workers would earn actual wages paid to American workers or the prevailing wages for the industry they’re working in, whichever is higher. The Labor Department would determine prevailing wage based on customary rates in specific localities, so that it would vary from city to city.

There also had been disagreement on how to handle the construction industry, which unions argue is different from other industries in the new program because it can be more seasonal in nature and includes a number of higher-skilled trades. The official said the resolution will cap at 15,000 a year the number of visas that can be sought by the construction industry.

Schumer called White House chief of staff Denis McDonough on Saturday to inform him of the deal, the person with knowledge of the talks said. The three principals in the talks — Trumka, Donohue and Schumer — agreed they should meet for dinner soon to celebrate, the person said.

However, in a sign of the delicate and uncertain negotiations still ahead, Rubio sent a letter Saturday to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., calling for a deliberate hearing process on the new legislation and cautioning against a “rush to legislate.” Rubio and a number of other Republicans are striking a tricky balance as they simultaneously court conservative and Hispanic voters on the immigration issue.

Separately, the new immigration bill also is expected to offer many more visas for high-tech workers, new visas for agriculture workers, and provisions allowing some agriculture workers already in the U.S. a speedier path to citizenship than that provided to other illegal immigrants, in an effort to create a stable agricultural workforce.

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Follow Erica Werner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericawerner
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Senate committee approves expanded background checks on gun sales

Sen. Chuck Schumer (AP)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (AP)

Democrats gave a boost Tuesday to the pillar of President Barack Obama’s plans for reducing gun violence, pushing a bill requiring nearly universal federal background checks for firearms buyers through the Senate Judiciary Committee over solid Republican opposition.

The proposal still faces a difficult path through Congress, where GOP lawmakers say it would have little impact on crime and warn that it is a precursor to a federal registry of gun owners. Such a listing is forbidden by federal law and is anathema to conservatives and the National Rifle Association.

The committee approved the bill 10-8, supported by every Democrat and opposed by all Republicans. It would require background checks for transactions between private individuals — they are now mandatory only for sales by licensed gun dealers — and expand a system designed to keep firearms from criminals, those with major mental problems and others.

“This isn’t going to be a perfect bill,” said its sponsor, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., acknowledging that it wouldn’t end gun violence. “But it will sure reduce crimes.”

The panel also voted 14-4 for a measure providing an additional $40 million annually for school safety improvements like classroom locks and training for teachers. Four Republicans joined Democrats in backing that measure, which initially called for a higher figure that was reduced in bargaining between Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Awaiting a committee vote Thursday is a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. That bill is expected to win panel approval but die in the full Senate when the chamber considers gun legislation, probably in April.

Tuesday’s session came as lawmakers wrestle over responding to December’s carnage at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 students and six educators. It also underscored the hurdles faced by expanded background checks, which has been seen as the most potent step lawmakers could take that has a fighting chance of passing Congress.

“Mass shootings would continue to occur despite universal background checks,” said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the committee’s top Republican. “Criminals will continue to steal guns and buy them illegally to circumvent the requirements. When that happens, we will be back here debating whether gun registration is needed. And when registration fails, then the next step is gun confiscation.”

Schumer responded that that assertion “demeans the argument.”

Schumer said he is continuing to negotiate with Republicans in hopes of crafting a compromise background-check bill. Talks failed with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Schumer also faces potential defections from a half-dozen moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning states in the South and West who face re-election next year.

There are 53 Democrats in the 100-member Senate and two independents who usually side with them. Republicans are likely to force Democrats to get the 60 votes needed to advance legislation.

Leaders in the GOP-dominated House have expressed little support for extending background checks to private transactions.

At one point during Tuesday’s debate, Schumer sounded almost wistful about the proposal’s prospects.

“It’s sad,” he said. “Right after Newtown, there was a view that maybe the right place that we could all come together on was background checks.”

According to the Justice Department, the government has conducted 118 million background checks since the system began in 1998 and rejected 2.1 million applicants because of them. Supporters of expanding the system say this shows how many dangerous people have been denied firearms, while opponents argue that the requirement simply drives criminals to get their weapons elsewhere.

Schumer’s bill would exempt some transactions, like those between close relatives.

It would also delay currently mandated cuts in federal aid to states that don’t improve the number of mental health records they report to the federal background check system, but reimpose the cuts in coming years. The penalty is designed to prod states to do a better job of reporting the information to the national system, following shootings by people whose information had not been sent to Washington.

Obama had lunch Tuesday with Senate Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a moderate who worked with Schumer toward a bipartisan background check deal, said Obama told them that guns and background checks were “a very important topic and he’d like to see what could be practically done.”

Before Tuesday’s committee action, the NRA emailed a fundraising solicitation to supporters accusing the Obama administration of “exploiting a terrible tragedy to pursue the political agenda they’ve been after for years — eliminating your constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”

The panel’s votes drew praise from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 900 mayors headed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Also expressing support was Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut who with his wife, the severely wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., has formed a committee pushing gun control.

A poll released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that around 8 in 10 of both gun owners and people without guns favor extending background checks to private gun sales. Majorities of gun owners oppose banning assault weapons, while most without firearms favor the prohibition.

About 3 in 10 Republicans said they own guns, about double the rate of Democrats. It also found that two-thirds of NRA members support expanded background checks.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam contested that, saying Pew had no access to NRA membership files and pointing to a survey by the group stating that 9 in 10 members oppose “banning the sale of firearms between private citizens.”

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Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell and Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Senate panel ready to OK background checks, other gun control measures

 

 Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, talks with the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, talks with the committee’s ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Democrats are ready to muscle expanded background checks and other gun curbs through a Senate committee, giving President Barack Obama an initial if temporary victory on one of his top priorities.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was to debate a bill Tuesday that would broaden the requirement for federal background checks to nearly all firearms purchasers. It was also considering a ban on assault weapons and an increase in federal aid for school security, though senators may not consider the assault weapons measure until later in the week.

Requiring background checks for private gun transactions between individuals — they’re currently mandatory only for sales by licensed dealers — is a centerpiece of Obama’s proposal to reduce firearms violence. The system is designed to prevent criminals, people with severe mental problems and others from getting guns.

Tuesday’s meeting comes five days after the panel approved Congress’ first gun control measure since December’s carnage at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 26 students and educators dead. That bill, by the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and others, establishes long prison terms for illegal gun traffickers and straw purchasers, people who buy a firearm for criminals or others forbidden to buy one.

The Judiciary Committee is expected to approve all three bills it is debating this week, with full Senate consideration next month.

“The American people need to speak up and be heard,” Leahy said Monday of what it will take for gun measures to clear Congress.

The background check bill by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would exempt only a narrow range of transactions from the checks, such as those between immediate family members or weapons loaned temporarily during sporting events. It would also renew the requirement that states and federal agencies report records on felons, people with major mental health problems, drug abusers and others to the federal background check system — something that many states and agencies do poorly.

Schumer had hoped to win GOP support for his measure, and he spent weeks bargaining with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who carries an A rating from the National Rifle Association. Those talks foundered, and the measure the New Yorker is pushing seems sure to meet strong GOP opposition.

Coburn’s backing could have helped Schumer win support from other Republicans and moderate Democrats from states with large numbers of GOP voters — potentially crucial because the background check measure is likely to need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate. There are 55 Democrats, including two independents who usually side with them.

Schumer still hopes to broaden support by the time the background check measure reaches the full Senate by finding other GOP senators willing to negotiate changes in it.

As senators prepared to consider the measures, a dozen members of the clergy from Newtown collected 4,000 signatures of religious leaders from around the country on a letter asking senators to support expanded background checks, an assault weapons ban and other restrictions. The letter was published Monday as an ad in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register and was addressed to Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Judiciary panel. The group planned to run the ad elsewhere as well.

The letter said that after gun violence in Newtown and other places, “To refuse to take the steps we know would reduce harm is a violation of religious values so severe that we are compelled to speak out.”

The NRA, which opposes the background check expansion, is encouraging its members to contact Congress, association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.

Leaders of the GOP-run House have said they will wait to act until the Senate passes legislation. House Republicans have expressed little interest in requiring background checks for private sales.

Democrats say background checks help keep criminals and others from getting weapons, and say keeping records of private sales is the only way to ensure that those checks are actually conducted. Currently, the government must destroy records of checks it conducts within a day, but gun dealers must maintain paper records of the transactions for 20 years.

Republicans oppose record keeping as a step toward a federal gun registry, which is barred by law. They also argue that current laws need to be enforced better without imposing record-keeping requirements on additional gun buyers.

GOP senators prepared several amendments for Tuesday’s debate, including one by Grassley imposing a mandatory minimum 1-year sentence for people who lie on paperwork submitted to licensed gun dealers. It was unclear whether Grassley would offer that amendment.

Since the federal background check system began in 1998, the government has received more than 118 million gun applications and turned down 2.1 million, or 1.8 percent, according to the Justice Department. The figures are through 2010.

Supporters of stronger curbs say those statistics show the large number of dangerous people denied firearms. They say extending the requirement to more sales would make it even more effective.

Opponents say broadening background checks would encourage more people to seek weapons illegally.

A 2004 survey of state prisoners involved in crimes that included guns showed that around 4 in 10 got their firearms from friends or family and nearly that many got them from unregulated street dealers. Only around 1 in 9 got them from licensed dealers.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Senate to start concentrating on gun control bills next week

022613gunsThe Senate Judiciary Committee seems all but certain to start voting on an assault weapons ban and other gun curbs next week, Congress’ first roll calls in response to the Newtown, Conn., slayings of 26 students and staff at an elementary school in December.

The Democratic-written bills largely follow President Barack Obama’s proposals for limiting gun violence, which have been opposed by the National Rifle Association and generated little support from congressional Republicans.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, said Monday that the panel would consider:

—A bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., banning assault weapons and ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds;

—A Leahy measure toughening federal penalties for illegal trafficking of guns, including up to 30-year sentences for people buying firearms they know will be used in crimes;

—A measure by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., increasing federal grants for school safety measures such as installing surveillance equipment.

Leahy said the panel would also consider still evolving legislation expanding the requirement for federal background checks for gun purchases, which are now required only for transactions by federally licensed gun dealers. Requiring those checks for nearly all gun sales is a top Obama goal, and one that has received the broadest support by the public and in Congress.

The details of the bill are not yet complete as liberal Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader, continues trying to reach a compromise with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Leahy announced plans for the panel to start voting on the measures this Thursday. But committee rules let senators postpone announced legislative work for a week, a practice that is followed routinely. The panel’s top Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, said he would request that delay.

“It’s just a process of making sure we have plenty of time to study” legislation, Grassley said in a brief interview.

Feinstein is chairing a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday on her effort to ban assault weapons, a proposal that is given low odds of enactment because of opposition by many Republicans and resistance by some moderate Democrats.

Witnesses are to include Neil Heslin of Newtown, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed at the school and Dr. William Begg, an emergency room physician in Newtown who helped treat victims that day. Feinstein has said the public needs to know how gruesome assault weapons wounds can be.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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White House says Obama’s immigration plan is ‘just a backup’

President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

The White House is downplaying its draft proposal as merely a backup plan if lawmakers don’t come up with an immigration overhaul of their own. It won’t be necessary, Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike are telling the Obama administration.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Sunday that President Barack Obama wants to “be prepared” in case the small bipartisan group of senators fails to devise a plan for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. In response, lawmakers assured the White House they are working on their own plan — and warned that Obama would be heading toward failure if the White House gets ahead of them.

“We will be prepared with our own plan if these ongoing talks between Republicans and Democrats up on Capitol Hill break down,” McDonough said, adding he’s optimistic they would not crumble.

But he was equally realistic about the fierce partisanship on Capitol Hill.

“Well, let’s make sure that it doesn’t have to be proposed,” McDonough said of the president’s pitch, first reported on USA Today’s website late Saturday.

Even so, the administration is moving forward on its own immigration agenda should one of Obama’s top priorities get derailed.

The administration’s proposal would create a visa for those in the country illegally and allow them to become legal permanent residents within eight years. The proposal also requires businesses to know the immigration status of their workers and adds more funding for border security.

It drew immediate criticism from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of the eight lawmakers searching for a comprehensive plan.

“If actually proposed, the president’s bill would be dead on arrival in Congress, leaving us with unsecured borders and a broken legal immigration system for years to come,” said Rubio, who has been a leading GOP spokesman on immigration.

Many of the details in the administration’s draft proposal follow the broad principles that Obama previously outlined. But the fact the administration is writing its own alternative signaled Obama wants to address immigration sooner rather than later and perhaps was looking to nudge lawmakers to move more quickly.

The tactic could complicate the administration’s work with Congress.

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin lawmaker who was his party’s vice presidential nominee last year, said the timing of the leak suggests the White House was looking for “a partisan advantage and not a bipartisan solution.”

“Leaking this out does set things in the wrong direction,” said Ryan. “There are groups in the House and the Senate working together to get this done and when he does things like this, it makes that much more difficult to do that.”

Freshman Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, called the leaked plan “incomplete” and said both parties in Congress and the White House need to work together on a solution.

“It hasn’t happened yet. It will happen before something is acted upon and certainly before something is passed,” he said.

Republican Sen. John McCain predicted the administration’s efforts would come up short if the White House went forward with a proposal, and he encouraged the White House to give senators a chance to finish their work.

McCain, the Arizona senator whose previous efforts at an immigration overhaul ended in failure in 2007, predicted the White House proposal’s demise if it were sent to Congress. He strongly urged the president to pocket the drafted measures.

“I believe we are making progress in a bipartisan basis,” said McCain, who is in the Senate group working on legislation.

And Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who met with Obama on Wednesday at the White House to discuss progress, urged his allies in the administration to give a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers the time to hammer out a deal on their own.

Schumer, a New York Democrat and a close ally of the White House, said he has not seen the draft proposals but, along with the Democrats working on a compromise, met with Obama this week to talk about progress being made on Capitol Hill.

Schumer acknowledged that a single-party proposal would have a much more difficult time becoming law and urged the bipartisan group of senators to keep meeting to find common ground.

“I am very hopeful that in March we will have a bipartisan bill,” Schumer said. “And, you know, it’s obvious if a Democrat — the president or anyone else — puts out what they want on their own, (it) is going to be different than when you have a bipartisan agreement. But the only way we’re going to get something done is with a bipartisan agreement.”

McDonough appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Ryan and Castro spoke to “This Week.” McCain spoke to “Meet the Press.” Schumer appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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Associated Press writer Ann Sanner in Ohio contributed to this report.

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