Some California Republicans ally with Democrats on immigration legislation

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

Two Republicans from California’s San Joaquin Valley are trying harder to break the partisan mold on immigration, amid broader challenges to their party and their own re-election prospects.

In a hands-across-the-aisle gesture that could foreshadow more to come, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., is becoming the first Republican to formally endorse a comprehensive immigration bill introduced by House Democrats. For the moment, the move makes Denham the sole GOP lawmaker to join House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and some 183 other Democratic co-sponsors.

“I believe we’ve got to do everything we can to get this issue across,” Denham said in an interview Friday. “We’ve been discussing this for well over a year. Now it’s time to get Congress to focus on this important issue.”

The comprehensive 1,137-page House bill includes a pathway to legal status and, potentially, eventual U.S. citizenship for immigrants currently in this country without authorization. It also includes myriad other provisions, including border security measures, an agricultural worker program, employment verification and more.

Denham said that House Democrats have also agreed to add to the bill a measure he’s previously introduced, permitting unauthorized immigrants to enlist in the military and earn legal status.

“My goal is to make sure we look at all areas of immigration, and not just border security,” Denham said.

Underscoring his higher profile, Denham was to appear in a bilingual interview Sunday on Univision, the widely viewed Spanish-language station.

Denham’s endorsement of the bill identified with Democrats is his most emphatic statement yet on an issue that’s divided his party, and it extends his prior declarations of support for comprehensive legislation. While Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., proclaimed Wednesday that “there are 45 to 50 Republicans ready to vote for comprehensive immigration reform,” dozens of other House Republicans vehemently oppose any bill providing what they call “amnesty.”

Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., representing a congressional district where Hispanics make up 72 percent of the population, has likewise been boosting his visibility on the immigration front. In July, he appeared with the outspokenly liberal Gutierrez at an immigration town hall meeting in Bakersfield. On Wednesday the two ideologically disparate lawmakers shared a Capitol Hill stage to support legislation offering U.S. citizenship to unauthorized immigrants who serve in the military.

“This has been an interesting fight for me,” Valadao said. “We’ve got to get this fixed.”

The Senate passed its own version of a comprehensive immigration bill in late June by a 68-32 margin. Since then, Valadao noted, with some understatement, “We’ve had some distractions” that have hindered House action.

In particular, the GOP-controlled House slogged through a federal government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdown that Republicans had originally hoped would force Democrats to yield ground on the health care law. The political morass ended up dividing Republican lawmakers instead of stalling Obamacare, with Denham ultimately voting against the bill to reopen the government, while Valadao voted for the government reopening.

Immigration and other long-stalled issues, like a farm bill, will now test the ability of lawmakers to move on post-shutdown and set aside any lingering distrust. They will also be maneuvering within a tight political calendar.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Denham acknowledged. “My concern is with a short time frame.”

Within a month or so, Congress could again become consumed in a self-imposed crisis atmosphere. Current federal spending only extends until Jan. 15, and the debt ceiling expires Feb. 7. Once those government-shutdown and government-default deadlines are overcome, congressional campaigning for the 2016 mid-term House elections will further complicate any deal-making.

Underscoring the complicated politics, Gutierrez said other House Democrats urged him to “stop working” with Republicans on immigration legislation because the party is “trying to defeat them (and) take the House back.” Valadao and Denham have both been specifically targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner allowed that he was “hopeful” the House would take up immigration this year. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor added that he expects the House will “move forward this year in trying to address reform and what is broken about our system.”

A likely piecemeal approach will include legislation offering legal status for unauthorized immigrants who entered this country as children and those who serve in the military. Border enforcement and employment verification measures are also ripe for action. Whatever the House does will then shove lawmakers into a conference with the Senate. Denham said he expects the House will take up immigration in early December, although it’s not yet clear exactly which bills will be brought to the floor for a vote.

“So now it’s up to Republicans in the House to decide whether reform becomes reality or not,” President Barack Obama said at a White House meeting Thursday.

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau