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House hearings threaten Senate immigration bill

Keeping debate alive could energize Republican base before elections

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Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, pushed the idea of more immigration hearings.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a move that could prevent immigration legislation from passing Congress this year, the House will begin a fresh series of hearings on immigration next month, Republican leaders announced Tuesday.

The hearings will be held in Washington and across the country "so we understand what the American people are saying," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

The push for the hearings is led by Hastert, an aide to the GOP leadership told CNN. The hearings on Capitol Hill will occur in July, the aide said, but most of those outside of Washington will be held in August.

In May the Senate passed immigration legislation that, along with strengthening border security, would create a program permitting illegal immigrants who had resided in the United States for five years or more to "earn" their citizenship after paying a fine and back taxes, learning English and holding a job for six years.

The Senate bill also would allow illegal immigrants who have resided in the United States from two to five years to apply for a guest worker program.

President Bush supports the Senate's "comprehensive" approach to immigration reform. Many conservative Republicans, especially those in the House, said the Senate's approach amounted to "amnesty" and vociferously oppose any legalization program before border security has been strengthened.

A House Republican aide told CNN that the hearings were meant to "increase the negatives [of Senate bill] while accentuating the positives of the House bill."

Congressional aides agreed to talk to CNN only on the condition of anonymity due to the politically sensitive nature of the issue.

"We're going to listen to the American people," Hastert said. "The top thing is we need to secure the borders and we need to have the law enforcement to go along with that."

"I'm not ruling out anything now," Hastert said when asked if he opposed a legalization program for illegal immigrants. "I'm just saying our No. 1 priority is securing the border, and right now I haven't heard a lot of pressure to have a path to citizenship."

'Nail in the coffin'

A House Republican staffer, however, told CNN that said the hearings would effectively be "a final nail in the coffin" of the Senate's legalization program.

"If it weren't already in the the ground, it's going there," the House aide said.

Differences between the Senate bill and a House bill that passed in December and focuses mainly on border security still must be reconciled by a conference committee. Members of the conference have yet to be appointed.

The conference committee will not meet until after the hearings, a GOP aide told CNN. With mid-term elections this fall, it may be difficult to get immigration legislation to the president's desk before lawmaker's hit the campaign trail.

"If this legislation is ready to pass in August or September -- well, not August but September -- than we'll pass it, but it's not going to be passed before it's ready," Hastert said.

Rallying the base

Immigration is the key issue for the Republican rank-and-file, a House Republican aide said, and will drive conservatives to the polls -- unlike the recent Senate debate on gay marriage or the upcoming vote on an amendment to ban flag burning.

As evidence, House Republicans point to the victory by Rep. Brian Bilbray in a special election in California earlier this month. Bilbray ran against the approach favored by President Bush and the Senate and argued that the borders must be secured first. (Read what lessons politicians took from California's special election)

Furthermore, a House staffer pointed to the political challenges faced by five-term Republican Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, who supports a legalization program and now faces an unusually stiff primary challenge next Tuesday.

The House Republicans' reluctance to settle the hot-button issue could create a backlash from their Senate colleagues. Tensions between House and Senate Republicans over immigration issues have been simmering for months, and one Senate Republican aide warned that the House's approach to immigration may end up being a political liability to the party.

"The only nail they're hammering is into their own foot," the Senate aide said. "They ought to be careful. If they behave in a certain way, at the end of the day their mulish obstinacy will ensure that 2 million more illegals sneak in."

CNN's Andrea Koppel and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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