In this cold winter, U.S. Congress offers little warmth for snowbirds

WASHINGTON – For any snowbirds who may soon find themselves bumping into the limit for time spent in the U.S., bad news: there’s no more escaping this year’s Canadian winter.

That’s because an attempt to increase the maximum stay hasn’t concluded in time to provide respite from this interminably icy season. It’s been frost-bitten by a process that can be as painful as a Canadian cold snap: the U.S. legislative system.

A now-frozen immigration bill contained provisions that would have benefited those Canadians, estimated at up to 500,000, who reach the six-month maximum allowed in the U.S. over a 12-month period.

But proponents have a Plan B.

They hope a separate piece of legislation, currently before the House of Representatives, might advance soon despite the Republican-controlled chamber’s refusal to deal with the omnibus immigration bill passed by the Senate.

They’ve received more than a dozen new co-sponsors for the bill in recent weeks, bringing to 141 the number of members from both parties who have added their names to the bill presented by Nevada Republican Joe Heck, titled the Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act.

They’re urging lawmakers to focus on the first word in the bill’s title — “jobs.” Proponents would rather shift this discussion away from the politically charged terrain of immigration, and towards economic grounds such as the job benefits for the U.S. tourism industry and retailers.

“The problem with JOLT, frankly, is I don’t think it’s an immigration piece,” said Michael Mackenzie, head of the Canadian Snowbird Association, which has been actively lobbying for the bill alongside U.S. business interests and lawmakers from states that receive Canadian tourists and shoppers.

“The fact that it’s tied to immigration reform is a bit of a problem for us right now… It’s a jobs bill.”

The bill would allow people over age 50, with an American address, to spend an extra two months in the U.S. — up to eight months a year. It would be primarily used by the most ardent snowbirds who want to stay south a little longer, or who want to add additional cross-border trips in the summer.

To understand the difficulty of getting immigration measures passed in the U.S., one need only ask Marco Rubio. After the Republicans lost the 2012 presidential election thanks to minuscule support from Latinos, there was talk that the party might need to accept amnesty measures for illegal immigrants in order to rebuild its fortunes with that fast-growing demographic.

Rubio was immediately considered a possible front-runner for the presidential Republican nomination in 2016. Then he started talking about immigration reform and amnesty. And there went his front-runner status within the Republican party.

The party leadership has wavered in the fight, blowing hot and cold. House Speaker John Boehner offered a strong hint recently as to why. With his leadership already under attack from Tea Party types after he caved on a budget battle, Boehner appears to believe he’d get beaten up for moving on immigration.

“For the last 15 months I’ve been trying to move the ball down the field, only to be tackled by people that just don’t want to deal with it,” Boehner was quoted saying this month during a trip to Washington State by the Kitsap Sun newspaper.

But he professes to want reforms this year, likely in series of piecemeal bills. That’s where JOLT proponents might have an opening — perhaps in time for next winter.

Even if the bill passes, however, it would face two other practical hurdles. Tax rules in the U.S. would need to change, and Canadian provinces would have to relax restrictions on health-care coverage for those gone more than six months.

Bob Slack, a snowbird who’s been active in the fight, said he’s confident on both fronts: provinces have been getting on board, and he expects the U.S. taxman would do the same, because of the benefits to both countries.

Canadian taxpayers would save health costs for snowbirds during the winter, while still collecting their income taxes, while the U.S. collects additional tourism dollars, said Slack, a retired school principal.