House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday defended a decision by Republican leaders to block a narrow immigration measure pushed by a GOP congressman, possibly shutting down the likeliest area of compromise on the contentious issue.
Boehner said that the national defense bill was not the place for a vote on California Rep. Jeff Denham's measure offering citizenship to immigrants brought illegally to the country as youths who serve in the military. The decision was the latest sign that broader immigration overhaul measures promoted by President Barack Obama and already passed by the Senate will likely die this year in the Republican-led House.
"We have supported it in the past but trying to do this on the national defense authorization bill seems to us be an inappropriate place to do it," Boehner told reporters about Denham's bill. He said there'd been discussions about allowing Denham a stand-alone vote on his bill but no decision has been made.
Despite the opposition from Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Denham planned to push forward with offering his bill, known as the ENLIST Act, as an amendment to the annual defense policy bill during a meeting of the House Rules Committee later Tuesday.
House leaders, who control the Rules Committee, have made clear that Denham's effort will be denied.
Denham said Tuesday that he was surprised by the announcement, and hasn't been given a reason.
"These men and women want to serve the only country that they know. They're willing to put their lives on the line for our freedom. Why wouldn't we have that as part of our national defense authorization bill?" Denham asked at a press conference outside the Capitol, flanked by immigrants who would be helped by the bill.
Denham's bill would allow immigrants who were brought to this country on or before Dec. 31, 2011, and were younger than 15 years old to become legal, permanent residents — the first step toward citizenship — through honorable service in the military.
It was co-sponsored by 50 House members, 26 Democrats and 24 Republicans, but an outspoken minority was opposed. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., had warned that "all hell will break loose" if Denham tried to promote the measure. And Cantor faces a primary opponent in June who's accused him of supporting amnesty.
The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill last year that would boost border security, remake legal worker programs and offer a path to citizenship to the estimated 11.5 million people now living here illegally. The House has not acted on any element of the legislation, and Boehner reiterated his position Tuesday that GOP distrust of Obama is to blame.
"Until the president gives us some reason, some confidence that we can trust him to implement an immigration reform bill, we really don't have much to talk about," Boehner said. "The ball's in the president's court."
Boehner declined to specify any steps Obama could take to regain the GOP's trust.
Despite a wide coalition of business, labor, religious groups, farmers and others pushing for an immigration overhaul, many individual Republican House members who represent largely white districts have been unmoved. That's particularly true in an election year amid concerns about angering core GOP voters.
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