In May, a House committee unanimously approved a border-security plan… (Jahi Chikwendiu/THE WASHINGTON…)
In mid-May, as most of Congress was consumed with the troubles at the Internal Revenue Service and the Senate was conducting closely watched hearings on a sprawling, contentious immigration reform bill, something remarkable happened in the House Homeland Security Committee.
With little fanfare, the committee unanimously passed a border-security plan as part of its immigration reform effort.
Unanimously. All the Democrats and all the Republicans voted the same way on the same issue. And not just any issue, but securing the border against illegal immigrants — as acrimonious and politically polarizing as any.
Unanimous does not happen much in Washington anymore. And rarer still, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have found themselves on the same side of the issue, with each publicly praising the bill in recent weeks.
The committee vote was the most hopeful sign to emerge from the House that some kind of immigration deal with the Senate is possible.
The House will leave Washington this week for a five-week summer break without voting on any immigration bills, but members of both parties are working to build support for the border-security plan, which Republican aides expect will be the first immigration measure Congress votes on when it reconvenes in September.
In some ways, the narrow agreement on border security in a House committee may be the gateway to a broader agreement on immigration.
It clears the way for Republicans who need to address concerns about security along the U.S.-Mexico border before voting on any other bills related to the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, the solid Democratic support for the GOP-sponsored measure on this most intractable of issues is an encouraging signal that immigration may not be doomed by the sharp partisanship that is ubiquitous in Washington.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) chairs the Homeland Security Committee and oversaw a process that aides say included 42 separate drafts of his 26-page bill.
“This isn’t something we threw together at the last minute,” McCaul said in an interview. “We’ve been working together for years on this, with studies and consultations with the experts.”
That approach is in contrast to the way the Senate arrived at its border-security plan. Seeking as much bipartisan support as possible, the authors of the Senate legislation scrapped a carefully crafted plan at the end of June and replaced it with one that calls for a “border surge” of almost 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents and the construction of about 700 miles of fencing, at a cost of $46 billion.
The plan would create what supporters call “a virtual human fence,” or enough manpower to deploy agents every 1,000 feet along the 2,000-mile border, from San Diego to Brownsville, Tex.
The House bill doesn’t set an exact price or timeline or mandate a certain number of hires. Instead, it instructs the Department of Homeland Security to write a plan that could ensure the apprehension of 90 percent of illegal border-crossers in high-traffic areas within 33 months and across the entire southern border within five years. The measure directs the department to find ways to deploy existing U.S. military radar, cameras and unmanned aerial drones used recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress would need to review and approve the plan before appropriating any money.
Detailed decisions about equipment, manpower and suggested costs would be left to career Homeland Security officials, who would consult with border-state governors and government experts who track security and immigration flows. The independent, nonpartisan Government Accountability Office would be required to assess the proposed strategy and report back to Congress on its implementation.
If the House bill passes, aides said, Senate Democrats will be willing to negotiate on border security so long as it is part of a package of bills that includes a “pathway to citizenship” or permanent legal status for the nation’s undocumented immigrants.
The House measure also has some cheerleaders among Senate Republicans. Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), a lead sponsor of the Senate’s border proposal, said he is open to supporting it.
“Any action that the House might take on immigration reform is positive,” Corker said, adding: “As long as they’re moving ahead with some kind of immigration policy, I’m going to be cheering.”
Conservative House Republicans say they prefer their chamber’s bill because it respects the “regular order” committee process, sets only general goals and asks government professionals, instead of politicians, to lay out specific plans.
For the past several years, “we’ve seen the doubling of agents and we have not seen the doubling of the security of the border,” said Rep. Stevan Pearce (R), who represents the southern half of New Mexico and plans to support the House bill.