The GOP congresswoman is getting backers to move a bill directly to the House floor for a vote.
By David Lerman
Presidential politics and legislative wrangling have stalled attempts to address a hot issue in many parts of the country: illegal immigration.
But Virginia Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Norfolk, is trying to force a political showdown on Capitol Hill.
In a rarely successful parliamentary move, Drake is hoping to bypass legislative committees and bring an immigration bill directly to the House floor — against the wishes of Democratic leaders.
The immigration measure, which would add 8,000 border patrol agents and expand a database for employers to check the eligibility of workers, isn't even her own. The bill was written by a conservative Democrat, Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina.
But Drake, backed by House Republican leadership, is hoping to use Shuler's bill to force a vote and break a congressional stalemate over immigration since the collapse of a reform measure last year in the Senate.
If it succeeds, the move could embarrass House Democratic leaders, who have been trying to reach a consensus on an immigration overhaul within their fractured caucus. For Republicans, the move also risks reviving an immigration debate that caused a rift between the GOP's presumed presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and the party's conservative base.
McCain, who last year favored a bill that would put many illegal immigrants on a path toward citizenship under certain conditions, now says he favors securing the borders first.
"This is an issue the American people care very deeply about," Drake said. "It's a very basic bill that secures our borders first and that's what we've all been talking about."
But the attempted legislative maneuver, called a discharge petition, is not easy to pull off. To force a vote in the House, Drake would need to collect 218 signatures of House members, if no House seats are vacant.
That requirement means Drake would need to win support of almost all Republicans and a substantial number of Democrats — a high hurdle in a House that has been politically polarized for months.
As of Friday, Drake had 181 signatures that included a handful of conservative Democrats, including Shuler. All Virginia Republicans signed Drake's petition. Congress is now in a two-week Easter recess.
In a brief interview, Drake declined to make any prediction of whether her effort will succeed.
"We're certainly going to try," she said. "I'm going to work very hard to get those signatures."
The Shuler bill would authorize an additional 8,000 guards to the Border Patrol over five years. It also seeks to streamline deportations of illegal immigrants and expand a database that employers can use to verify the eligibility of workers.
Drake said she has been actively seeking ways to reform immigration laws since last year, when two Virginia Beach teenage girls were killed by a drunken driver who was also an illegal immigrant.
That case triggered national attention on cable news shows, led by conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly, who faulted Virginia Beach officials for failing to report the driver to immigration authorities.
In another attempt at modest reform, Drake and two other Virginia lawmakers wrote a letter last month to the Department of Homeland Security, asking the department to open a database for law enforcement to make it easier for police to determine the immigration status of criminal suspects.
A national database now used by police allows officers to check suspects' criminal background, but not their immigration status.
"The result is a complicated and bureaucratic process of determining legality that enhances the likelihood that criminal illegal aliens will evade deportation following their incarceration," lawmakers wrote in their letter. It was signed by Drake, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Richmond, and Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland.
The lawmakers asked the department to find a way to link the database used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to the database used by law enforcement. A Homeland Security spokeswoman said Monday the agency had no immediate comment.