When Republican House leaders announced a new round of nationwide immigration hearings last week, it triggered a wave of eye-rolling among Democrats and immigrant advocates.
Critics see the hearings, which began almost a month ago, as GOP-produced political theater -- a diversion from hunkering down for talks with the Senate on rewriting immigration policy.
The sessions have featured some posturing, snarky exchanges and odd scenes, such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) assembling a self-made wooden model of the 13.5-foot-high concrete wall he would like to see built along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But if this is theater, it has a clear plot line.
House Republicans continue to bet that their push for enforcement-only legislation is more appealing to voters than the Senate formula, which would combine bolstered border security with a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Reflecting that belief, the upcoming House hearings are scheduled not only in states struggling with illegal immigration, such as California, but in states such as Indiana, where several Republican House members are struggling to get reelected.
And if this is theater, it is collaborative. House Democrats have often emphasized their belief that the hearings are a stalling device. At a hearing this month on making English the official U.S. language, Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma) told a witness: “This is silly, what we are doing today.”
The Democrats’ frustration reflects a growing consensus on Capitol Hill that it is increasingly unlikely Congress will send President Bush an immigration bill before the November elections. As the vote approaches, the appetite among lawmakers for tackling a controversial topic seems to diminish.
Under this scenario, the two chambers could grapple with producing a compromise immigration bill in a lame-duck session at the end of the year, when the political stakes that have surrounded the issue may have lessened.
The new round of hearings is to begin this week and continue through August, with 21 sessions in 13 states, including two in San Diego and one in Santee.
They will examine issues such as illegal immigration’s impact on military bases and how the Senate bill would affect local law enforcement.
Few are named with the zing of recent House hearing titles -- including “Whether Attempted Implementation of the Senate Immigration Bill Will Result in an Administrative and National Security Nightmare.”
But House Republicans continue to wield language like a weapon. They call the Senate measure the “Reid-Kennedy bill,” referring to Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), ignoring the major roles that GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Mel Martinez of Florida played in crafting the legislation and the support it won from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
The House has held more than a dozen hearings on the Senate bill, prompting complaints even from some Republicans.
“They ought to be called faux hearings,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who sponsored a bill, which was defeated, that would have offered citizenship to illegal immigrants.
Several of the upcoming hearings revisit topics covered in the earlier round.
The San Diego inquiry will reexamine the impact of illegal immigration on social services and whether “these costs would increase under [the] ReidKennedy immigration bill.”
“The topics may be the same, but the areas where they’re holding them are different,” said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Madden described the sessions as an effort to get out of the “vacuum of the Washington, D.C., Beltway mentality” so that lawmakers could “inform the public about troubling provisions in the Senate bill.”
The hearings also seem targeted toward specific political races.
For instance, the schedule includes a stop in Iowa, where Republicans are trying to fend off a stiff Democratic challenge for an open House seat that has been in GOP hands.
There will also be a hearing in New Hampshire, where six-term Republican Rep. Charles Bass is facing a tough reelection contest, and in Indiana, where GOP Rep. John Hostettler is fighting against a popular, well-funded Democratic challenger.
But not all aspects of the previous hearings have been dismissed as political posturing.
A session led by Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave (R-Colo.) scrutinized how employer verification measures in the Senate and House bills would affect small businesses.
Another examined the technical aspects of layered border fences.
At that July 20 hearing, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) expressed disappointment that Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) did not support the House proposal for 730 miles of double fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Reyes, a former Border Patrol sector chief and a friend of Hunter’s, had supported the Californian’s 1996 effort to build a fence at the San Diego border.
But as a witness at the recent hearing, Reyes argued against the 730-mile fence.
Hunter expressed his hope that his colleague would reconsider.
“Please,” Reyes said. “I want to be reelected.”