WASHINGTON – Partisan tempers continue to flare after the top House and Senate Republicans pledged to fight against making "unlawful presence" of illegal immigrants in the U.S. a felony in the immigration reform bill now stalled in Congress.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist late Tuesday released a statement blaming House Democrats for allowing a provision in the bill passed in December to make it a crime to be in the United States illegally, and singled out the Senate Democratic leader for stalling legislation.
"It remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony," Hastert, of Illinois, and Frist, of Tennessee, said in their statement.
Democrats lashed back, with Sen. Edward Kennedy dismissing the statement as "empty rhetoric," and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's office saying Republicans tactics represent "politics of distortion and distraction."
The partisan swipes mark the latest moves in a battle that started last week when the Senate failed to come to agreement over what has been promised as the most comprehensive immigration bill since the Reagan administration.
The issue of criminal status of illegals is central to the debate on immigration reform and has become a main arguing point for opponents of a bill passed by the House in December. Critics say the bill would not only make it illegal for undocumented aliens to remain in the country, but it would also make it a criminal act to assist the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the country.
Clergy, employers and social service workers have expressed concern about the unlawful presence provision of the bill, though defenders of the bill say the felony provision for assistance applies to human smugglers and others who help border jumpers.
The House bill that contains the felony provision was one of the reasons cited by many of the hundreds of thousands who have protested around the country in recent weeks. The Senate is working on its own immigration package that currently does not include the felony provision. Both the House and Senate must agree on a bill before it can be sent to President Bush for his signature.
Under current law, most illegal immigrants face a misdemeanor charge for violating provisions against crossing the border without proper documents or not crossing at a border station, said Benjamin Johnson, director of the American Immigration Law Foundation's Immigration Policy Center. Felony provisions in current law are applied to other classes of people such as smugglers.
But the average illegal immigrant is usually deported as a penalty, though he or she could be fined or face up to six months in jail, Johnson said. AILF opposes the felony provisions in the House bill.
The problem with the House version, according to Johnson, is that it would greatly broaden the number of people subject to criminal penalties, including some who have legally entered the states.
For instance, he said, someone who is a legal alien must report an address change to authorities. The way he reads the House bill, if a legal immigrant doesn't report an address change, she would be in violation and subject not only to deportation, but also to penalties under the proposed felony provision.
"It wouldn't just be the 12 million undocumented immigrants that are subject to a felony prosecution. It would be lots of other people ... who are temporarily out of status or whose violations of immigration law were very innocent," Johnson said.
Public opinion on the whether illegal immigration should be a crime is mixed. A Washington Post-ABC news poll this week found that only 20 percent were in favor of making illegal immigration a felony and barring illegal immigrants from working.
But a Gallup-USA Today poll released this week found that 61 percent of those polled say illegal immigration should be a crime, and 52 percent thought it should be a crime for U.S. citizens to provide assistance knowingly to illegal immigrants.
The House bill including the unlawful presence provision passed in December by a vote of 239-182 largely along partisan lines: 203 Republicans were joined by 36 Democrats voting yes for the bill, and 164 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent voted no.
But Republicans say the partisan vote isn't representative of their feelings toward the felony provision in the House bill. Democrats defeated a Republican-led amendment that would have removed the felony provision, and Republicans say Democrats did it so they could have a political issue to use against the GOP.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chief sponsor of the House bill and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said the felony provision will be removed once the Senate finishes its bill and the two houses go into negotiations to complete work on the bill.
"As far as those who remain in the country illegally being guilty of a felony, two-thirds or 70 percent of the Republicans in the House voted to make that a misdemeanor," while 191 Democrats "voted to keep it a felony so they could have this phony issue of that being a felony," Rep. Peter King told FOX News this week.
In their statement, Hastert and Frist said Democrats lack compassion and "voted to make felons out of all those who remain in our country illegally." They also blamed Reid for blocking action on immigration, although Reid has said he was trying to prevent a Republican-led effort to water down a compromise.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Reid was "using procedural gimmicks to prevent the will of the American people from being heard."
GOP aides also have pointed out that Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., tried during debate on the House floor to reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor.
The attempt failed on a vote of 257-164, with 65 Republicans and 191 Democrats opposed. Democrats, however, including members of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, indicated at the time they favored a bill with no criminal penalties and opposed the suggested change.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the felony measure was placed in the original bill by House Republicans.
"The reality is that this punitive, anti-immigrant provision was included in Congressman Sensenbrenner's proposal. No amount of spin from Speaker Hastert or Senator Frist can obviate that ... [or] can deny that."
Manley said McClellan's statements show that "this White House simply has no credibility. ... Regrettably, this White House has again chosen to play fast and loose with the facts."
Manley said it will be up to Bush to get a comprehensive bill passed. He blamed conservative Republicans for the delay in the Senate's work.
In a letter from Reid to Frist dated Wednesday, Reid called Frist's position on immigration "very confusing" and insisted on quick action on immigration legislation.
In response to Hastert and Frist, Sen. Edward Kennedy, one of the lead voices in the Senate on the immigration issue, released a statement saying he was not impressed by the Republican leaders latest promises.
"Actions speak louder than words, and there's no running away from the fact that the Republican House passed a bill and Senator Frist offered one that criminalizes immigrants," Kennedy said. "Millions of people have made their voices heard in support of a comprehensive immigration reform plan and now it is time for action, not empty rhetoric."
In the meantime, the Senate is expected to take up its version of the immigration reform bill when it returns from Easter recess in two weeks. That bill failed to gain traction in the Senate after Democrats blocked a number of amendments to the compromise, saying that the amendments would have watered down the intent of the bill. In turn, Republicans said Democrats were not dedicated to true immigration reform. Democrats raised similar questions about Republicans.
While the likelihood of the Senate coming to agreement is in question, the ability of the Senate and House to reach a deal is equally unknown.
Republican conservatives in the House have denounced Senate proposals as so-called amnesty — giving lawbreakers an unfair advantage at citizenship over those who have sought legal pathways into the country.
FOXNews.com's Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.