WASHINGTON -- In a decision that puts overhaul of immigration laws in serious doubt, House Republican leaders said yesterday that they would hold summer hearings around the nation on the subject before trying to compromise with the Senate on a chief domestic priority of President Bush.
"We are going to listen to the American people, and we are going to get a bill that is right," said Speaker Dennis Hastert, who said he had informed Bush of the plan.
The unusual decision to set a new round of hearings on legislation already passed by the House and Senate places a serious roadblock in the way of Bush's drive for major changes in immigration policy.
The timing means that formal congressional negotiations will not begin until September, just as congressional campaigns are entering their crucial final weeks - a time when lawmakers typically shy away from difficult issues.
"I don't know how likely that is," said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the House Republican whip, about reaching agreement before November. He suggested final consideration might have to wait for a lame-duck session after the election. "We clearly are going to be here later in the year," Blunt said.
But advancing significant legislation in lame-duck sessions has proven difficult. If Congress does not act this year, the House and Senate would have to begin anew next year.
A White House spokeswoman said Bush would continue to press for legislation. "The president is undeterred in his efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill," said the spokeswoman, Dana Perino, who added that the White House was "committed to working with members to see if we can reach a consensus on a bill that will help solve our nation's immigration problems."
The leadership decision reflected the deep resistance among House Republicans to the bipartisan approach approved in May by the Senate and generally endorsed by Bush. That bill combined new border enforcement with a program for temporary guest workers and the ability of illegal immigrants to qualify for citizenship by meeting a series of requirements.
House Republicans late last year passed their own party-line bill that focused solely on border enforcement. They say a majority of the public backs their approach, and many House Republicans consider the Senate bill to be amnesty for those who have entered the country illegally.
"Our No. 1 priority is to secure the border, and right now I haven't heard a lot of pressure to have a path to citizenship," Hastert said.
In a swipe at the Senate version, Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, a senior member of the Republican leadership, labeled the legislation the "Kennedy bill" - a dismissive reference to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who helped write the measure in cooperation with Republicans including Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John McCain of Arizona.
Those lawmakers held out hope yesterday that a final bill could be completed this year and said they accepted the House position that more scrutiny was required. "I respect their views, and I hope that we can still continue discussions and hopefully we can reach an agreement," McCain said.
But another proponent warned that voters might punish Republicans if they were unable to come up with a solution.
"The question is: Is it better to solve the issue before the election, or is it better to make people mad and do nothing?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "I think it is hard to go to the electorate when you have the White House, the Senate and the House and say that you cannot at least go through the effort of trying to get a bill. That would to me be a sign of inability to govern."
Democrats were highly critical, with Kennedy accusing House Republicans of a "cynical effort to delay or kill a comprehensive immigration bill."
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said Republicans were stalling, and he called on Bush to prod members of his party. "He has complete domination over this Republican Congress," Reid said. "Let him tell us how much he really wants a bill."
The focus of the summer hearings and the schedule were uncertain yesterday as Republicans suggested they would be used both to explore the content of the Senate bill as well as to survey public opinion on the issue.