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WASHINGTON — A Democratic bill in the House to overhaul the nation's immigration laws is picking up Republican support, though well short of the votes needed to pass the measure.
Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., on Wednesday became the third Republican to co-sponsor the bill, which includes a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants.
Valadao, the son of Portuguese immigrants whose family runs a dairy farm, said in an interview with USA TODAY that his background, and that of his district, which is 72% Hispanic, was a big factor in his decision.
"I grew up in an immigrant family, I grew up in an immigrant community and I work in an immigrant-dependent industry. So it's not like this is a stretch for me," he said.
Valadao said the slow pace of immigration legislation in the House also contributed to his decision.
"This isn't really a shot at leadership, but more, 'Guys, this is important to me, we have to move and we have to be part of this solution,'" he said. "It doesn't matter how conservative of a district you come from – we have a system that we need to fix."
Valado's decision to join Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Jeff Denham, R-Calif., in co-sponsoring the bill comes at a critical time for immigration reform in Congress.
There are 231 Republicans in the House and the GOP leadership has overseen hearings on separate bills tackling individual immigration issues. It has not favored a single bill to handle all issues.
A bill needs 218 votes to pass the House and the Democratic bill has 186 Democratic co-sponsors. Adding three GOP votes still falls well short of a majority for passage.
The Senate passed a sweeping overhaul to the nation's immigration laws in June that provides a pathway to citizenship for the country's undocumented immigrants, doubles the size of the Border Patrol and revamps the legal immigration system to bring in more high-tech and low-skilled workers.
But even Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of the architects of that bill, has questioned whether that bill is the best way forward. Rubio said Rubio's spokesman, Alex Conant, said the "all or nothing" approach they took in the Senate "would result in nothing."
Rubio and House Republican leaders say they would rather move forward with the "piecemeal" approach in which Congress considers smaller bills that tackle individual pieces of the nation's immigration laws.
House committees have approved a handful of bills that address border security, grant immigration enforcement powers to local and state police officers, increase the number of visas for high-tech workers and require U.S. businesses to check the immigration status of new hires.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he is "hopeful" that immigration could be voted on by the full House before the end of the year, but he has given no timetable.
"These guys signing on (to the Democratic bill) are kind of like people left standing when the music stops in musical chairs," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes the Senate immigration bill. "Just as the prospects of a bill passing are declining, these people are signing on."
Supporters of the Democratic bill see something else happening.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a group that supports the Senate immigration bill, said the increasing support of the Democratic bill puts more pressure on GOP leaders to get moving on immigration.
"Does it mean that this bill is going to be brought up sometime soon? Probably not," Sharry said. "But does it ratchet up the pressure on house leadership to get something going? Yeah. It'll make it harder for House leadership to slow-walk this thing to death."
The bill, H.R. 15, is sponsored by Rep. Joe Garcia, R-Fla. It is mostly a replica of the Senate's immigration bill, but it eliminates the $46 billion border security plan adopted in the Senate and replaces it with a border security plan authored by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and was approved unanimously by the House Homeland Security Committee.
Garcia said he was encouraged by the latest addition to his bill, and said he's pushing to bring more on board. He hopes it will reach a point where House leadership is forced to bring it to the floor, where it could pass with most Democrats and a couple-dozen Republicans, similar to the vote that ended the government shutdown.
"The same way we found votes on the budget, I think Speaker Boehner will see the votes here," Garcia said.