WASHINGTON (AP) — A key committee in the Republican-led House moved Tuesday toward approving a tough enforcement-focused immigration bill, over objections from Democrats and disruptions from protesters shouting "Shame, shame, shame!"
Meanwhile in the Senate, a Republican lawmaker floated a compromise border security proposal he hopes can win over support for sweeping immigration legislation under consideration there that opens the door to citizenship for 11 million immigrants now here illegally.
And on a day of fast-paced developments on an issue that is a top priority for President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, moved to quiet speculation that he might bring the Senate immigration legislation up for a vote despite opposition from many conservatives in his chamber.
"Any immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties' support if we're really serious about making that happen. And so I don't see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn't have a majority support of Republicans," Boehner said. He added that border enforcement would be key for any immigration bill, "And I frankly think the Senate bill is weak on border security."
As Boehner addressed reporters, the House Judiciary Committee was meeting to consider a bill, called the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. It would empower state and local officials to enforce federal immigration laws, make passport and visa fraud into aggravated felonies subject to deportation, funnel money into building more detention centers, and crack down on immigrants suspected of posing dangers.
As soon as Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., gaveled the proceedings open, more than a dozen protesters who had been seated in the hearing room stood up and began clapping and chanting, "Shame, shame, shame! More of the same!" They were ushered out but their cries could still be heard in the hallway and Goodlatte stopped the proceedings until the protesters had been dispersed.
Goodlatte said that the bill under consideration — the first immigration bill to come to a vote in a House committee this year — "provides a robust interior enforcement strategy that will maintain the integrity of our immigration system for the long term."
But Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said that "this bill must be opposed, it would turn millions of undocumented immigrants into criminals overnight." She predicted mass protests were the bill to become law, along the lines of what happened in 2006 after the House passed a similarly tough enforcement bill.
The move by the House Judiciary Committee comes less than two weeks after the full House voted to overturn Obama's 2012 election-year order to stop deportations of many immigrants brought here illegally as youths.
Together the two moves highlight the challenges ahead in getting a comprehensive immigration bill through Congress this year, as Obama wants. For many House conservatives, the priorities when it comes to immigration remain enforcing the laws and securing the border, not allowing the millions here illegally to gain legal status or citizenship.
Still, No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland predicted Tuesday that if the Senate passes an immigration bill with bipartisan support, "I think the Republican leadership will be under great pressure to let the House work its will" — Capitol Hill jargon for letting the House take up legislation even without majority support from the majority GOP.
"I think the presidential wing of the Republican Party is absolutely convinced they need to be for an immigration bill," Hoyer said, saying they believe they have to "forge some bridge" to the Hispanic community. He added, "That same motivation does not apply to the congressional wing" of the GOP.
As in the House, border security is at issue in the Democratic-led Senate, where senators have been jousting over how to strengthen the provisions in a far-reaching bill being considered on the floor this week to remake the nation's immigration laws. The bill would allow tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers into the country, and require all employers to check their workers' legal status. At its heart is a 13-year path to citizenship for people now here illegally, but that is contingent on certain border security goals being met.
Republican critics say those "triggers" are too weak and have been demanding amendments to strengthen them. The Senate planned to vote Tuesday on an amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., requiring 700 miles of double-layered border fencing before anyone here illegally could get a permanent resident green card.
A more far-reaching proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has been getting attention, but Democrats and some Republicans have dismissed it as a "poison pill" because it would require 90 percent of people attempting to cross the border to be stopped before anyone here illegally could get a permanent resident green card.
The underlying bill also has the 90 percent figure as a goal, but doesn't make the path to citizenship directly contingent on achieving it.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told The Associated Press Monday night that he has been working on an alternative with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and others. Hoeven said his proposal also would require the 90 percent apprehension rate to be met before immigrants could get green cards. But he said his plan, unlike Cornyn's amendment, would make the 90 percent rate objective and achievable by specifying all the equipment and technology the border patrol says it needs to achieve the rate in each of the nine southwest border sectors, and carefully tracking attempted crossings.
Hoeven said he hoped to unveil his amendment in the next day or two and said it could garner the support needed to get bipartisan support for the immigration bill.
"Our effort is to get good legislation that truly secures the border," Hoeven said. "That people feel it's fair and it's not amnesty ... so we can get really a bipartisan consensus."
However, Hoeven's amendment could encounter skepticism from immigrant groups and Democrats who want to be sure that the bill doesn't change in a way that makes the path to citizenship harder to achieve.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.