GOP lawmakers in the House started gathering signatures Tuesday on a petition that would force Democrats to schedule a vote on Shuler’s measure to increase enforcement along the borders and block undocumented workers from jobs in the U.S.
The move gives Republicans a chance to show off their immigration bona fides in an election year while putting pressure on Democrats from more conservative districts to rebuff their own leaders in support of the bill. It also complicates fragile negotiations between House Democrats over the substance of a modest immigration overhaul being considered by members of the majority, and could reopen some political wounds for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.), backed by her leaders, filed the discharge petition calling for a vote on the Shuler bill, which would add 8,000 border guards to the federal payroll, expedite the deportation of illegal immigrants and expand an existing database for employers to check the eligibility of a potential worker.
To force that vote, Drake and her colleagues must corral 218 signatures, which means they would need near-unanimous support from within their own party plus a substantial bloc of Democratic votes. Shuler quickly signaled his support for the procedural push, despite the pressure it puts on some of his colleagues.
“I would have preferred that the SAVE Act came to the floor through regular order, but it deserves to be debated and voted upon on the House floor,” Shuler said in a statement.
Freshman Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a fellow Democrat who represents a conservative district in southern Indiana, also signed on to the discharge petition Tuesday, and others were open to backing it.
“I want to see this bill on the floor,” said freshman Rep. Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat who has co-sponsored the bill and will consider signing the petition if his colleagues can’t reach an agreement on an immigration overhaul. “I’m hopeful this will force a resolution.”
In total, 49 Democrats have signed on to Shuler’s bill. Republicans began circulating quotes in support of the legislation Tuesday from some of those co-sponsors. GOP lawmakers and aides have privately expressed doubts that they can rally enough support from within their ranks to force a vote.
Meanwhile, a group of House Democrats have been huddling for weeks over a modest immigration overhaul that would extend a visa program for low-skilled temporary workers. A coalition of business owners, such as restaurant owners in Massachusetts and resort owners in Michigan, is pushing Congress to quickly approve the extension so these employers will have enough seasonal labor to make it through the summer.
But competing interests are weighing down the core legislation.
On one side, the enforcement-only crowd, which supports the Shuler bill, is holding out for tougher border protection and oversight of the workplace. On the other side, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are angling for more comprehensive reforms that would include some protections for undocumented workers already in this country.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who is trying to broker a truce between the competing interests, has concerns that the knee-jerk rejection of a comprehensive overhaul has complicated the process for members of the majority.
“We can win on the merits of our argument, but it’s hard to win on the politics in a very political year,” Stupak said of reaching a compromise. “We’re trying to find that balance.”
Stupak and a handful of Democratic colleagues held a series of meetings Tuesday, bginning at 8 a.m., to hammer out a compromise that all sides would accept. The group includes Shuler, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Reps. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts, Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois and Xavier Becerra of California.
That group also has reached out to Republicans, but the GOP roiled the process Tuesday by launching the discharge petition.
The Shuler bill was viewed as a political tool when Shuler introduced it last year. Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray of California quickly signed on as a co-sponsor and began recruiting his GOP colleagues to do the same.
But the legislation presents lawmakers with sizable hurdles. For example, the bill calls for the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to share employee data, creating a major new workload — as well as civil liberty concerns — for three agencies that have already been stretched thin under the requirements of their charters.
The Republican discharge petition does force House Democrats to confront the issue in earnest for the first time since coming to power. A Senate immigration package fell apart last spring, sparing the House majority from having to address the complicated politics involved.
But the issue also serves as a stark reminder that House Republicans differ with their presidential candidate on the issue of immigration. GOP leaders were moving forward with the petition last week but postponed that decision until they could confer with surrogates for McCain.