WASHINGTON – House members writing a bipartisan immigration bill said Thursday they had patched over a dispute that threatened their efforts, even as they and the rest of Congress prepared to return home for a weeklong recess where many could confront voters’ questions on the issue.
The eight lawmakers in the House immigration group have struggled for months to come to agreement on a sweeping bill that would have a chance in the GOP-controlled House while satisfying Democrats’ objectives.
Talks almost broke down last week, only to resurrect and then break down again this week over the question of providing health care for those here illegally who would gain legal status under the bill, lawmakers and aides said.
Republicans in the group want to ensure that those immigrants don’t get taxpayer-funded care and could be subject to deportation if they don’t pay their health bills, said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a member of the group. But an agreement reached last week on that question apparently sparked concern among House Democratic leaders, causing Democrats in the group to back away.
After meeting Thursday afternoon in the Capitol, the lawmakers said they were back on track. Labrador said agreement remained that immigrants shouldn’t get taxpayer-funded care, but he said there had apparently been a misunderstanding that led Democrats to fear emergency care could be denied to immigrants.
“I think maybe there was some confusion about some details, but I think we’re all good,” Labrador told reporters.
“I’m very pleased,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., also part of the group. “We’re going to get there. There’s going to be justice done for our immigrant community.”
The developments with the House group came two days after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a comprehensive bill with a bipartisan vote to remake immigration laws, enhance border security and put the estimated 11 million people living here illegally on a path to citizenship.
The full Senate is to take up the legislation in June. Supporters are hoping to see the bill pass by a wide margin, with as many as 70 votes in the 100-member Senate.
That’s seen as a way of pressuring the House to act. If the Senate does pass a bill, it’s likely to be more liberal than what the House group might produce and more to the liking of many liberals in the House, including some of the Democratic leadership.
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement along with his top lieutenants Thursday promising the House would act on the issue, but making clear House members would not accept any bill passed by the Senate.
“The House remains committed to fixing our broken immigration system, but we will not simply take up and accept the bill that is emerging in the Senate if it passes,” the statement said.
“The House will work its will and produce its own legislation,” it said.
Officials said Boehner has privately said he hopes to have a bill through the House by August, though there is no strategy yet on what it would include. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Meanwhile House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., pressed forward with his approach of introducing narrowly focused, single-issue bills on immigration, unveiling one Thursday to deal with the high-tech industry and boosting visas for highly skilled immigrants. And illustrating divisions among Democrats in the House, Rep. John Barrow, a conservative Georgia Democrat, introduced his own immigration bill focused on border security without any offer of citizenship to those here illegally.
Before Congress takes its next steps on the volatile issue, lawmakers will spend a week in their home states and districts for the Memorial Day recess. So far opposition to the immigration legislation has not materialized with the fury it did during Congress’ last attempt on immigration reform, in 2007. But this recess will be an important opportunity for many lawmakers to hear from their constituents on the issue at an important juncture in the debate.