WASHINGTON — In a striking show of force, the core of House Republican leadership defended their plan to hold a series of summer hearings on two vastly different immigration bills — a move Democrats charge is an attempt to quash immigration reform this year — and insisted their intent is to send a compromise bill to the president’s desk this year.

House GOP leaders said at a news conference Thursday that they were not using delay tactics to block immigration reform, but were holding hearings to outline differences between the House and Senate immigration bills.

“We want to make sure Congress gets this done right and not be rushed just because it’s an election year,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.).

He said the goal is “to write a bill in conference that protects the American people and we can send an immigration bill to the president this year.”

Hastert announced earlier this week that leaders would take immigration reform on the road from Washington, D.C., to California in July and August, instead of going straight into conference to reconcile the differences, a move critics said was highly unusual.

It is expected to be a difficult task to reconcile the Senate bill, which tightens border security, creates a guest worker program and allows a path for citizenship for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in this country, with the House’s border enforcement measure, which would make it a felony to be in the country without documentation. The House bill does not contain provisions for a guest worker program or citizenship opportunities.

Holdings hearings this summer would postpone any Senate-House conference on immigration legislation until the fall at the earliest, and could dampen the prospects of getting a bill done this year.

“Our goal here is to get a bill,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio). “We strongly support an initiative to secure our borders, and provide additional resources to federal and state authorities that strengthens border security.”

Boehner invoked the mantra of conservative Republicans earlier in the day, calling provisions in the Senate bill “amnesty” and indicating that House leaders are unwilling to settle for a guest worker program or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in a compromise bill.

This story first appeared in the June 23, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R., Wis.) said, “There are some who suggest … these hearings are designed to slow the bill down. That is not the case.”

He pointed the finger at the Senate, maintaining it was holding up the conference committee because of procedural issues. Democrats have been hurling accusations at Republicans over immigration all week.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), during a floor debate Wednesday on a measure to increase the minimum wage, which failed, said: “Let’s be perfectly clear. This idea of field hearings is just a front, an attempt to delay, impede and obstruct a bipartisan effort to strengthen our borders and fix the immigration system.

“The House doesn’t need hearings to name conferees. The only reason they [want] hearings is to pander to the right-wing base of their party and avoid hard work in negotiations … It’s been clear for weeks now that the House Republicans have no intention of passing an immigration bill this year.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said at her weekly news briefing Thursday that “Republicans have to kick this issue down the road and they are taking it out of Washington and probably past the election [in November]. That’s a failure.”

Asked whether Democrats would join Republicans and participate in the hearings over the summer, Pelosi said: “We won’t be missing in the debate.”

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