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Duel looming for public support on immigration


WASHINGTON -- A leader of the Senate effort to overhaul immigration law says he will answer a House plan to hold immigration hearings around the U.S. by having his own set of hearings.

The announcement by Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, indicates that instead of watching lawmakers negotiate a final version of the immigration bill, Americans will see dueling efforts by House and Senate members to lobby the public toward radically different visions of immigration policy.

Specter said his first Senate hearing would be July 5 in Philadelphia - the same date that House Republicans will hold a hearing in San Diego, suggesting that a split-screen debate over immigration would occur from opposite sides of the nation.

Hearings by both chambers will continue through August.

The competing events will display Republican divisions over immigration. The Republican-led House passed legislation last year that focuses on improving security at the border and enforcing laws that bar employers from hiring illegal workers.

A Senate bill, crafted by Republicans and Democrats and passed in May, includes a guest-worker program and measures that would offer citizenship to many of the illegal immigrants in the United States. Those provisions are strongly opposed by conservative Republicans in the House.

Negotiations to reconcile the two versions of the immigration package were expected to begin, but the decision earlier this week by House leaders to launch their new round of hearings means that those talks are unlikely to start for months, if at all.

Yesterday, House Republicans turned aside accusations that their hearings on the Senate bill were designed to delay or derail passage of a final bill.

"Our goal is to get a bill," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

House members will hold hearings on security issues and on provisions of the Senate bill that they oppose.

Specter's hearings will focus on the Senate proposal for a guest-worker program to allow more foreign workers into the U.S. and on the Senate bill's plans to create a path toward citizenship for many of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

"They are marked as felons under the House bill," Specter said. "What are you going to do with them? You going to round them up? You going to push them into hiding? My thinking is they can't be ignored."

His July hearing would include farmers, landscapers and hotel industry representatives. An aide to Specter said the fact that his hearing in Philadelphia falls on the same day that House leaders plan to hold their San Diego event was not intentional. No other dates or topics for Senate hearings have been released.

As many as seven committees will take part in the House hearings, which open in Washington on Wednesday with a look at intelligence-gathering along the border. The hearing in San Diego and a third, July 7 in Laredo, Texas, will examine border vulnerabilities and international terrorism.

Other House hearings set for mid-July will look at designating English as the official language and will review enforcement of current immigration laws and their impact on the work force. A hearing planned for the week of Aug. 14, probably in Yuma, Ariz., will focus on the costs of illegal immigration to federal, state and local governments.

These subjects have been examined in previous House and Senate committee hearings.

As-yet unscheduled House hearings will focus on specific measures in the Senate bill. These include provisions that would increase legal immigration; allocate Social Security benefits to immigrants for work done while they were illegal; grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants; and require U.S. consultation with Mexico before any barrier is built along the border.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, called the GOP plan a "political stunt" staged for the November elections, when the Republican control of the House could be threatened. Waxman asserted that the hearings were out of character for the Republican leadership, which he said had failed to invite input on dozens of other pressing issues.

"The idea of holding hearings to get input? They are not serious about that at all. This is part of their campaign to hold onto the House," he said.

Nicole Gaouette and Faye Fiore write for the Los Angeles Times.

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