House lawmakers and aides are locked in an impasse over legislation that would renew a program employers can use to verify the legal status of their workers, mainly over language that some worry might ultimately kill this means of enforcing immigration laws. Racing against the clock, members of the House Judiciary and House Ways and Means committees are locked in negotiations over language reauthorizing the Homeland Security Department's E-Verify program, which allows employers to confirm an employee's information against Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases. But the program will expire Nov. 1 if Congress does not reauthorize it. The main point of contention in the negotiations, according to sources, is language that would prevent the SSA from using its funding to support the program. Homeland Security is responsible for covering the costs of the program, but sources said Social Security sometimes has to use some of its funding. The agency in turn has sought reimbursement from the Homeland Security Department. But if language is written into the reauthorization bill that prohibits Social Security from using its funding to support the program, it could cause the program to shut down in the future, sources said.
Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith has "serious concern" about language proposed by Ways and Means Committee Democrats. "As Congress debates the reauthorization of E-Verify, we must be sure that nothing is done to undermine the continuation or effectiveness of the program," he said. "There is simply too much at stake for American employers to allow this important resource to expire. Congress should act now to pass an immediate and long-term reauthorization of E-Verify." House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called the negotiations "a work in progress" but said she believes a final deal will be reached. "There are active discussions going on over how to extend it and the like, not only with our leadership but I'm talking across the aisle so we can reach consensus," Lofgren said. "There are Democrats and Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee who want to make sure that the Social Security Administration is reimbursed for their costs," she added. "We're trying to work through this to have an agreement and I'm confident that we will." A spokesman for the Ways and Means Committee said, "We are very close to final language that would ensure an effective employment verification system without placing an undue burden on SSA, and thereby threatening to detract from its ability to serve seniors and people with disabilities."
Both Homeland Security and Social Security officials sent House Speaker Pelosi and key lawmakers a letter Friday saying they are working on an agreement under which Homeland Security will pay all costs of E-Verify through FY13. "We also agree that DHS should fund all E-Verify systems and operating costs," the letter said. "SSA's appropriated funding will not and should not be diverted from SSA's core mission of administering the respective programs under the Social Security Act and serving retirees, the disabled, and other Americans entitled to compassionate service." A source said the letter makes clear that Homeland Security will pay all costs, so inserting language to that effect in a reauthorization bill should not be opposed. "Making sure that everybody gets paid to do the work they're doing is not an unreasonable exercise," the source said. Lofgren originally wanted to put a reauthorization bill on the House floor by the end of July. She said she still believes it is possible to strike a deal and get a bill on the floor this week. But one source noted that the congressional schedule going forward is short due to the upcoming elections. "They're running out of time," the source said. "The sad thing is that a bill that everybody says they support is being used as a complete political football."
This article appears in the August 2, 2008 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.