WASHINGTON (AP) — Sweeping immigration legislation moving toward a vote in the Senate would boost the economy and reduce federal deficits, the Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday, at the same time it would bestow legal status on an estimated 8 million immigrants living in the United States unlawfully.
In an assessment that drew cheers from the White House and other backers of the bill, Congress' scorekeeping agency said the measure would reduce federal red ink by $197 billion across a decade, and $700 billion in the following 10 years as increased taxes paid to the government offset the cost of government benefits for newly legal residents.
The White House quickly issued a statement saying the report was "more proof that bipartisan commonsense immigration reform will be good for economic growth and deficit reduction." Several members of the "Gang of Eight" senators who drafted the legislation also hastened to welcome the news.
The assessment came as the pace of activity increased at both ends of the Capitol on an issue that President Barack Obama has placed at the top of his domestic agenda.
Challenged by protesters chanting "shame, shame," House Republicans advanced legislation to crack down on immigrants living illegally in the United States, at the same time the Senate lurched ahead on a dramatically different approach offering the hope of citizenship to the same millions.
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said the bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee was part of a "step by step, increment by increment" approach to immigration, an issue that can pit Republican against Republican as much if not more than it divides the two political parties. The legislation was agreed to on a party-line vote of 20-15 late Tuesday.
California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren predicted there would be "millions of American citizens taking to the street" in protest if Republicans pressed ahead with the bill. The measure permits state and local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws and requires mandatory detention for anyone in the country illegally who is convicted of drunk driving.
Despite the protests, approval by the GOP-led committee was a foregone conclusion. The panel's chairman, Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said future bills would require companies to make sure their employees are living in the United States legally, create a program for foreign farm workers who labor in the United States and enhance the ability of American firms to hire highly skilled workers from overseas.
Those steps and more are already rolled into one sweeping measure in the Senate, a bipartisan bill that Obama supports and that appears on track for a final Senate vote as early as July 4.
The CBO said in its report and accompanying economic analysis that the legislation would raise economic activity in each of the next two decades, in part because of the legal immigration fostered by the measure, and also because millions of workers currently in the country illegally would join the legal workforce and pay taxes.
Not all the forecast was as favorable, though. CBO said average wages would decline through 2025 as a result of the bill, and that unemployment would go up slightly.
One critic quickly seized on the impact on pay. "It's going to raise unemployment and push down wages," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said of the bill. He added: "The impact will be harshest for today's low-income Americans. Meanwhile, the 21 million Americans who can't find full-time work will have an ever harder time getting a job and supporting their families."
Supporters of the bill saw it differently.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and part of the Gang of Eight, said the CBO report "debunks the idea that immigration reform is anything other than a boon to our economy, and robs the bill's opponents of one of their last remaining arguments."
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and a co-author of the bill, said in a statement that the budget agency confirmed that "reforming our immigration system is a net benefit for our economy, American workers and taxpayers," although he said he hopes for changes before it comes to a final vote.
The report was issued near the end of a day of skirmishing on the Senate bill.
The Senate rejected a move by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to require the installation of 350 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border before legalization can begin for anyone currently in the United States illegally.
Similarly, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to prevent legalization until a biometric system is in place to track people entering or leaving the country through air, sea or land points of departure.
Those proposals were overshadowed by a larger debate over the types of border security requirements the legislation should contain. Republicans generally want to toughen the existing measure, particularly since the bill includes a 13-year path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally — a provision that sparks opposition from voters who could be influential in GOP primaries in next year's mid-term elections.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told reporters that he and others want the government to demonstrate an ability to apprehend the vast majority of those attempting to enter the country illegally before anyone already present can take the first step toward possible citizenship.
Democrats have previously been unwilling to consider proposals along those lines, arguing they could postpone legalization for years if not longer. As drafted, the bill gives the government six months to develop a plan to achieve border security, but does not hold up legalization while it is being tested for effectiveness.
It was unclear what, if any, compromise is possible on that point. Agreement would greatly increase the bill's chances for passage with a large bipartisan vote.
The measure was drafted by a bipartisan Gang of Eight and represents a series of political trade-offs among senators as well as outside groups like business and labor, growers and farm workers. In addition to border security and a path to citizenship, it includes an expanded number of visas for highly skilled workers prized by the technology industry and a new program for low-skilled workers. It also features a top-to-bottom overhaul of a decades-old system for parceling out visas to future legal immigrants, reducing the importance of family ties while emphasizing education, job skills and youth.
Any talk of compromise in the House appeared distant as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sought to reassure conservatives who have expressed fears he will allow legislation to come up this summer that they oppose and Democrats support.
One official who attended the closed-door meeting quoted the Ohio Republican as saying he has no intention of allowing a bill to come up that would violate the principles of the GOP majority and split its ranks. The speaker also made clear that legislation must satisfy Republican concerns about border security, according to the official.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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