WASHINGTON — Momentum to overhaul the nation's immigration laws hit roadblocks in Congress on Wednesday, where leading Republicans said legislation pending in the Senate needs to be much tougher on border security to stand a chance at becoming law.
"The bottom line is we have a vibrant debate going on in the Republican Party. I can tell you that the bill as currently structured can't pass the House, and I think it's going to struggle to pass in the Senate," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said following a closed-door meeting with the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the conservative faction that makes up the majority of House Republicans. "If the changes don't happen, the bill can't pass," he said.
Rubio appeared before the RSC in a rare session with five other Republican senators — Jeff Flake of Arizona, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Rand Paul of Kentucky — to debate their competing views on the Senate's immigration bill.
Rubio and Flake are part of a bipartisan coalition trying to get it passed, while Cruz, Lee and Sessions have voiced opposition to the bill. Paul said Wednesday that he will seek tighter border security measures when the Senate begins lengthy debate on the bill next week.
For example, one of the proposed Senate amendments by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would require law enforcement to certify 100% control of the U.S.-Mexico border before any undocumented immigrants could receive permanent status.
The amendment reflects a broader distrust among Republicans in the Obama administration's enforcement of current immigration laws, as well as the administration's ability to enforce new border security laws. "There's no trust right now in the Department of Homeland Security to do this," Flake said.
Many Republicans believe the border needs to be more secure before Congress can move forward with any legislation to provide a path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. The Senate bill provides that path, but leading conservative House lawmakers are skeptical that any pathway at all can pass the GOP-controlled House with the support of the majority.
"I think at this point that would be highly unlikely," Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., told reporters Wednesday at a roundtable hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
Flake was more optimistic. "There are some who don't want any immigration reform, no path to citizenship, but that view is not shared by all. In fact I don't think it's shared by most."
However, there is also broad resistance in the House GOP to taking on any comprehensive immigration overhaul, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has already said the Senate bill is a non-starter in the House.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., with the support of House GOP leaders, is taking a piecemeal approach to revising immigration laws. "That holds the greatest amount of promise for moving something forward," Price said.
One of the Senate bill's foes, Sessions, R-Ala., said his argument toward defeating the bill received a warm reception among House Republicans. His message: "This bill, absolutely, will not work."
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of eight House lawmakers hit a snag Wednesday when one prominent conservative, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, left the talks over a continuing dispute about what government health care services should be provided to undocumented immigrants while they have temporary legal status.
However, remaining negotiators said progress continues to be made on the issue and they expect to unveil a bill soon. "Things are looking up," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who declined to offer specifics. "I'm very optimistic as to where we are," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
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