WASHINGTON (AP) - Democratic supporters of a new immigration bill accused opponents Monday of trying to "exploit" the Boston Marathon bombings to hold up the legislation, sparking a testy exchange at a Senate hearing.
"I never said that! I never said that!" Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, interjected as Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a lead author of the bill, criticized "those who are pointing to what happened, the terrible tragedy in Boston, as a, I would say, excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it."
Schumer said he wasn't talking about Grassley, who said last week that the bombings, allegedly carried out by two immigrant brothers, raised question about gaps in the U.S. immigration system that should be examined in context of the new bill. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., banged his gavel to settle the proceedings.
The exchange came as the Judiciary Committee opened its second hearing on sweeping legislation to strengthen border security, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check their workers' legal status, and provide an eventual path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants now here illegally.
The obstacles to the legislation, released last week by a group of four Republican and four Democratic senators, were on stark display Monday. Polls show majority public backing for comprehensive legislation including a path to citizenship, and many Republicans also support such an approach. But in some corners, opposition has not wavered. That became clear as GOP senators took turns offering critiques.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called a path to citizenship "divisive," and said that "any bill that insists upon that jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform bill."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., contended that the new bill would drive down wages and eliminate jobs for American workers.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the border security piece of the bill "falls well short of the sponsors' aspiration to protect the borders and maintain U.S. sovereignty."
And Grassley said new requirements mandating employers to verify employees' legal status are ineffective.
The attacks were allegedly carried out by two ethnic Chechen immigrant brothers who both arrived legally in the U.S. about a decade ago. One was a legal permanent resident and the other a naturalized U.S. citizen. On Monday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., joined Grassley and others who've suggested that the bombings showed the need to examine national security and the U.S. immigration system.
Some Democrats suggest that the true motive behind at least some voicing such concerns is to oppose immigration legislation.
Leahy used part of his opening statement Monday to assert that opponents of immigration reform had begun "to exploit the Boston Marathon bombing."
"Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of these two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people," Leahy said.
He said the bill would strengthen national security by focusing on border security and enforcement.
Grassley bridled at Leahy's comments, saying that when Leahy proposed gun legislation, "I didn't accuse you of using the Newtown killings as an excuse."