Democrats are demanding President George W. Bush deliver significant support—likely more than a quarter of all House Republicans—to ensure passage of a bipartisan overhaul of U.S. immigration law.
Democrats say they won’t shoulder the responsibility alone for any comprehensive and politically sensitive plan that includes Bush’s proposals to give 12 million illegal aliens a chance at citizenship and to create a guest-worker program. The president made his latest pitch for the plan in his State of the Union address this week.
Substantial Republican support is “a prerequisite,” said Democratic Representative Howard Berman of California. Key Democrats and congressional aides from both parties suggest 50 to 60 of the House’s 202 Republicans is the minimum backing to guarantee passage. “I would hope the number would be closer to 100,” said Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez, a sponsor of immigration reform.
Last year, the Republican-controlled House thwarted Bush’s drive to revamp immigration as members of his own party decried what they said was an amnesty program for illegal aliens. Instead, they approved a 700-mile fence last year to tighten the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president and the new Democratic-controlled Congress now find themselves uneasy allies on the issue.
“The only way for us to do meaningful immigration reform is for it to be bipartisan,” said Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat. “If that issue’s politicized, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
There are at least 175 House Democrats who would support comprehensive legislation, Gutierrez said. If Republicans produce from 50 to 60 votes, that would put the plan over the top with room to spare and provide the bipartisan political cover both sides want.
Rounding up enough Republican support won’t be easy, given that such Republican leaders as Roy Blunt, the No. 2 Republican in the House, opposes Bush’s approach providing a path for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and eventually citizenship. “I could not support a plan that allows citizenship as a reward for coming into the country illegally,” Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said last week.
There is also the question of how many of the 42 freshman House Democrats elected last November will support a bipartisan plan.
The House voted 239-182 in 2005 to strengthen border security and impose criminal penalties on the estimated 500,000 aliens who cross the border illegally each year. There were no provisions for a guest-worker program or to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants. Just 17 Republicans voted against the bill, underscoring the hurdles facing any bipartisan compromise.
By contrast, bipartisan support is plentiful in the Senate. In May, 23 Republicans, 38 Democrats and one independent approved comprehensive legislation sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy and Arizona Republican John McCain that would provide illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship.
Arizona Republican Representative Jeff Flake, a sponsor of comprehensive immigration legislation, said he is hopeful for compromise. “A good section of my party” will buy that idea, he said, drawing a parallel with bipartisan support for raising the minimum wage.