House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and GOP House leaders virtually killed chances wide-ranging immigration legislation -- supported by President Bush -- will be considered this election year.
In a highly unusual move, Hastert (R-Ill.) said Tuesday there will be hearings this July and August in Washington and across the nation on the immigration bill passed by the Senate. Conservatives favor the tough enforcement-only House version, which subjects illegal immigrants and those who help them to felony charges.
"I think the action by the House of Representatives to reopen a series of hearings on comprehensive immigration reform is a cynical effort to delay or kill a comprehensive immigration bill,'' said Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Kennedy and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were key players in drafting the Senate legislation, developed with a group of GOP and Democratic senators. The Senate bill has two provisions embraced by Bush and objected to by conservatives: a temporary worker program and a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.
California win emboldened speaker
Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean deliberately referred to the Senate measure as the "Kennedy'' bill, instead of the Kennedy-McCain bill, signaling the polarizing political dimensions of the road ahead. Invoking the name of the liberal lion (and dropping mention of the popular McCain) plays to the GOP conservative base. Hastert has no "timeline,'' wants to get it done "right,'' and intends by this exercise to strengthen the House hand if an immigration bill ever moves.
At this stage in the legislative process, the usual route would be for Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to appoint members to what is called a "conference committee.'' The charge of this temporary panel is to reconcile differences between the two bills. If leaders want to bury a bill, usually they delay appointing conferees or let them negotiate indefinitely.
Frist is a possible 2008 presidential contender who needs conservative support. Hastert was emboldened to call for the high-profile hearings after a San Diego Republican, Brian Bilbray, won a special House election earlier this month campaigning for construction of a fence along the California-Mexico border and distancing himself from what Bush calls his "comprehensive'' approach.
It's not often Hastert splits from Bush -- and this is quite a public slap -- but the speaker is looking to preserve his majority, which can be lost if Democrats pick up only 15 seats in November. Bonjean said Hastert personally told Bush about the decision. That means that on Monday night, when Bush was making a plea for a broad immigration bill during a speech at a giant GOP fund-raiser, he already knew that he would not have a bill on his desk to sign anytime soon.
Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.