Fearful that they're losing ground on immigration and health care, a group of House Democrats is pushing back and arguing that any health care bill should extend to all legal immigrants and allow illegal immigrants some access.
The Democrats, trying to stiffen their party's spines on the contentious issue, say it's unfair to bar illegal immigrants from paying their own way in a government-sponsored exchange. Legal immigrants, they say, regardless of how long they've been in the United States, should be able to get government-subsidized health care if they meet the other eligibility requirements.
"Legal permanent residents should be able to purchase their plans, and they should also be eligible for subsidies if they need it. Undocumented, if they can afford it, should be able to buy their own private plans. It keeps them out of the emergency room," said Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Mr. Honda was joined by more than 20 of his colleagues in two letters laying out the demands.
Coverage for immigrants is one of the thorniest issues in the health care debate, and one many Democratic leaders would like to avoid. But immigrant rights groups and the Democrats who sent the letters say they have to take a stand now.
President Obama has said he does not want health care proposals to cover illegal immigrants. The bill drawn up by Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, excludes illegal immigrants from his proposed health care exchange.
Mr. Honda and his allies, though, say illegal immigrants should be allowed to pay for insurance if they can afford it, even if it comes through a government-established exchange. As a generally young, healthy part of the population, illegal immigrants could help reduce overall costs for those who buy into health exchange plans, the lawmakers said.
The Democrats' letters, however, do not issue ultimatums or threaten to withhold support for the bills if their requests aren't met.
The National Council of La Raza launched its own "flood their voice mail" campaign last week to put pressure on Mr. Baucus to expand coverage in his proposal to include all legal immigrants and to drop verification language in the legislation that would prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining coverage.
Mr. Honda told The Washington Times that he's not pushing for illegal immigrants to gain access to taxpayer-subsidized benefits. "That's an argument that's been done already," he said.
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said proposals that include government coverage for illegal immigrants leave him incredulous.
"If anybody can, with a straight face, advocate that we should provide health insurance for people who broke into our country, broke our law and for the most part are criminals, I don't know where they ever would draw the line," he said.
Mr. King, who opposes Democrats' health care plans in general, said illegal immigrant access in legislation "would be a poison pill that would cause health care to go down" to defeat.
Twenty-nine Democrats signed on to the letter on legal immigrants, while 21 signed the letter on covering illegal immigrants. Although the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus signed the legal-immigrant letter in their capacity as CBC officials, they signed the other letter as individual members of Congress.
Under the 1996 welfare law overhaul, Congress restricted most federal benefits to longtime holders of green cards - those who have been in the country at least five years.
But Democrats chipped away at that rule when they reauthorized the State Children's Health Insurance Program earlier this year and allowed states to cover all immigrant children and pregnant women, regardless of how long they've been in the country.
In their letter, the Democrats said health care costs are much lower for legal immigrants than for native citizens.
"Immigrants are part of our families, our communities, our economy, and contribute to the fabric of America," they wrote. "It is simply wrong that their taxes would pay for public health insurance programs to which they are not allowed access."