John A. Boehner, the House speaker, has tried to soften sentiment in Republican… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — The partisan divide over immigration was exposed Thursday as House Republicans voted to stop funding the Obama administration program that has halted deportation of young immigrants who are in high school or college or have served in the military.
The party-line vote in the Republican-led House comes as a bipartisan immigration overhaul is moving forward in the Senate. A vote to proceed to debate on the bill is set for next week.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has tried to nudge his majority to consider an immigration overhaul. He wrote an opinion piece published Thursday in a leading Spanish-language newspaper that touched on the issue. But rank-and-file Republicans have been cool to the effort.
The measure, approved 224 to 201, was sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who is among the chamber's most outspoken opponents of a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country without legal status. It would prohibit funding for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily halts deportation of young immigrants who have completed military service or are in high school or college.
Many of the young people call themselves Dreamers, after the Dream Act, which has been included in the Senate bill. That provision would provide a path to citizenship for those who entered the United States as children and are now adults without legal status.
King has called President Obama's deferral program "Dream Act Light." His measure would prevent funding for the Department of Homeland Security to use discretion in deportations.
The White House suggested Obama would veto the bill that includes King's measure. "It's wrong. It's not who we are. And it will not become law," Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
Three Democrats joined Republicans in approving the amendment, which is tacked onto a must-pass bill to fund the Pentagon and other defense accounts. Half a dozen Republicans, including a few from districts in California, New York and Florida — some with large Latino populations — voted against it.
"Whatever people think of the impending immigration policy here in the United States, we cannot allow the executive branch to usurp the legislative authority of the United States Congress," King said during this week's debate. "If we allow that to happen in immigration, it could happen to anything."
The House vote drew a sharp line in Congress as the Senate prepares to begin debate Friday on the most sweeping immigration overhaul in a generation, and it serves as a warning about the challenge of bringing House Republicans on board as senators begin to amend the bill to attract GOP votes.
Boehner has encouraged his colleagues to learn more about the immigration issue, especially as the GOP tries to connect with Latino and minority voters who have largely abandoned the party. But results have been mixed.
"Making the process of becoming a legal immigrant fairer and more efficient will help America remain a magnet for the brightest minds and hardest workers," Boehner wrote Thursday in the Spanish-language La Opinion.
The Senate immigration bill would provide a path to citizenship for those in the U.S. without legal status, while bolstering border security and launching new guest-worker and employee-verification programs.
A similar effort to draft bipartisan legislation in the House has struggled. House Republicans prefer a piecemeal approach that avoids the path to citizenship and focuses on border security.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced a bill Thursday that would ratchet up immigration enforcement. The measure would increase penalties for crossing the border illegally, add 5,000 deportation officers and 700 immigration support staff, and require that immigration agents be issued body armor, rifles, handguns and stun guns.
"One reason why our immigration system is broken today is because past and present administrations have largely ignored the enforcement of our immigration laws," Goodlatte said in a statement.
A new poll Thursday suggested Republicans could do better with Latino voters if the party backed an immigration overhaul. In November, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney lost the election in part because he received only 27% of the Latino vote, much lower than the 40% President George W. Bush received.
Forty-five percent of Latino voters polled said they would be more likely to support Republicans if the party took a "leadership role" in passing immigration reform, according to the poll from Seattle-based Latino Decisions. If a bill doesn't pass, 38% said, they would blame the Republican Party, 9% said they would blame Democrats, and 48% said they would blame both parties.
"The Republican Party is not going to be able to win another national presidential election if they are not in the high 30s or low 40s with Latinos," said Matt A. Barreto of Latino Decisions.
Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told reporters Thursday that Obama was "eager" to see a comprehensive bill pass Congress.
But she said he wanted a bill that left "no doubt" that immigrants in the country now without legal status would have the chance to become citizens.