The first immigration bill in the House this year would prohibit any money for the public advocate for immigrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
After hours of contentious debate, Republicans pushed through a bill in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday night that would bar the homeland security secretary from using taxpayer dollars for the ICE position. The 17-14 vote along party lines came after the panel rejected a series of Democratic amendments.
Republicans insisted the bill was necessary to counter the Obama administration's disregard for Congress' previous move to eliminate the position in Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A provision was tucked into a massive spending bill last year that President Barack Obama signed into law.
"Congress defunded the position and the administration chose to make an end run around Congress," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who argued that the administration simply changed the title of the position and kept the same person to bypass congressional will.
The bill would prohibit any money for the position of either public advocate or deputy assistant director of custody programs and community outreach in the ICE.
Goodlatte said the full House likely will consider the measure next week, making it the first piece of immigration legislation this election year.
Republicans criticized Obama, arguing that he selectively enforced the nation's laws. Along with the immigration bill, the committee approved two other measures — one would establish a procedure for the House or Senate to authorize a lawsuit against the executive branch for failing to enforce the law, the second would require government officials to report to Congress on reasons for nonenforcement.
The measures have no chance in the Democratic-led Senate, but Republicans said they were imperative.
"One of the reasons we don't have immigration reform today is because the president refuses to enforce the law," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
The committee's immigration bill comes just weeks after advocates expressed hope about House action this year on legislation dealing with the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally and current laws. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders have unveiled a set of principles on immigration in January that Latino groups and proponents of reform welcomed.
But their hopes were dashed as rank-and-file Republicans signaled they were wary of tackling the divisive issue in an election year and undercutting the GOP's positive chances in the midterm races. Republicans are increasingly confident that they can gain seats in November and seize control of the Senate.
Boehner blamed distrust of Obama for the dimmed prospects.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, recalled the optimism of January and described the committee's action on Wednesday as a "step backward to pass any bipartisan immigration."
In opposing the bill, Democrats countered that the public advocate ensures the safety of immigrants within custody of ICE.
"When did protecting people from harm become a subversion of the law?" Conyers asked.
The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill last June with strong bipartisan support that would create a pathway for citizenship for the 11 million, tighten border security and establish new visa and enforcement programs. The measure has languished in the House despite calls from national Republicans, business groups, religious organizations and labor for lawmakers to act.
Prominent Republicans have warned that the party's refusal to address the immigration issue alienates Hispanics, the fastest growing voting bloc, and will cost the GOP in the 2016 presidential election and beyond.
Separately, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was holding a series of meetings with advocates of immigration overhaul about using a rarely successful tactic known as a "discharge petition." It requires the minority party — in this case, Democrats, who are unable to dictate the House agenda — to persuade some two dozen Republicans to defy their leadership, join Democrats and force a vote on immigration legislation.
The political move would make a dozen Republicans who favor immigration legislation have to answer for their stand. Some of the GOP members in California and Colorado face competitive races in November.
Pelosi conceded that she is unlikely to get the necessary signatures. She said in an interview with Sirius XM on Tuesday that she will make a decision in the next few days.