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Republicans Mount Election-Year Effort to Highlight Democratic Divisions on Immigration

House Republicans are trying to force action on a Democratic-written immigration enforcement measure, the latest GOP attempt to elevate the volatile issue into an election-year wedge.

Republican leaders hope that by pushing the bill — endorsed by 48 centrist Democrats and 94 Republicans — they can drive Democrats into a politically painful choice: Backing a tough immigration measure that could alienate their base, including Hispanic voters, or being painted as soft on border security in conservative-leaning districts.

The plan is fraught with political risks for both parties. A full-blown immigration debate could call attention to Republicans' divisions at a time when their expected presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, is fighting to gain the trust of the GOP base.

McCain, R-Ariz., played a prominent role in failed legislative efforts to grant some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already here a path to legal status, which conservatives deride as "amnesty." He now says he would consider such a plan only after the borders have been fortified.

House Republicans are eyeing a bill by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., that would do just that, as well as mandate that employers verify that their workers are in the U.S. legally.

Leaders are expected later this week to use a parliamentary tactic that would eventually force a vote on the measure if 218 lawmakers — a majority of the House — demand it. Republicans are pressuring Democratic backers of the measure — including several first-termers and dozens from swing districts, all facing tough re-election fights — to defy their leaders and sign the petition.

"Lots of Republicans and lots of Democrats would like to see something done," Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the No. 2 whip, said Friday.

The move would be a rebuke to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who opposes the Shuler bill unless it's paired with measures to allow undocumented workers a chance at legal status and allow legal immigrants to bring more family members to the United States. Democratic leaders have been working behind the scenes to craft an alternative that could dissuade their more conservative members who back Shuler's bill from joining the GOP effort to press forward on it.

They are considering pairing a widely popular measure by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., to allow more seasonal workers to come to the United States under so-called H-2B visas with proposals aimed at speeding the process of granting immigrants' spouses and minor children visas to join their parents in the U.S., among others. Also under discussion is a bill that would allow nonresident immigrants serving in the military to become citizens.

It's not clear whether Republicans can gather enough support for a vote on the bipartisan enforcement bill, which couldn't take place until April at the earliest. GOP leaders relish the idea of calling attention to Democrats' rifts on the issue in advance of Congress' 14-day Easter recess starting next week. They plan to blast Democrats who have endorsed the legislation but not signed onto the effort to force a vote on it.

"I think it makes it harder for the majority to do nothing," Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla, said of the idea last week. "On a district-by-district basis, there will be places where this is an important issue."

Shuler has said he would sign the petition. He's one of several conservative-leaning freshman lawmakers whose elections in Republican or swing districts gave Democrats control of the House in 2006, handing Pelosi the speaker's gavel. He won his race amid Republican efforts to tie him to Pelosi, including an ad that accused him of plotting with Democrats "to take over Congress with the votes of illegal immigrants."

"He does support the (legislation) and would like to see an up-or-down vote," said Andrew Whalen, Shuler's spokesman. "He would prefer that it didn't become a political issue."

Some Democrats said they are eager to debate the legislation.

"It's a very big issue. I hear a lot about it, and that's why I want to bring it to the floor," said Rep. Jason Altmire, R-Pa., another first-termer who is co-sponsoring the bill. "We need to address it. Let's just bring it all to the floor and see what wins."

Even some Democrats who back Shuler's bill bristle at the idea of joining Republicans to force a vote on it, voicing concern that they're being used as political pawns.

"For their presidential candidate to have supported amnesty and for them to be pulling a stunt like this is pure politics," said Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., a co-sponsor of Shuler's bill.

In the Senate, a group of mostly conservative Republicans last week unveiled a package of legislation to crack down on illegal immigration and secure the border. They, too, said they would use procedural tactics to get Democrats on the record on the volatile immigration issue.

Democrats are trying to turn the tables, hoping that Republicans' efforts to push get-tough immigration measures will hurt McCain with Hispanic voters and independents, two groups that have supported him in the past.

In a letter to McCain last week, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., called on the Arizonan to reject the GOP leaders' plans, calling them "draconian and divisive."

"Such a rejection will let this nation's 44 million Latinos know that demonizing them for political purposes will not be tolerated and that the more hateful rhetoric in the immigration debate has no place in our country's civic discourse," Menendez wrote.