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Sweet Column: GOP rift on immigration could cost them the House in November.

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From my Sunday column....

For a divided Republican Party, immigration is an issue that could cost them control of the House. This intraparty fight, pitting Bush and business conservatives against isolationist conservatives, could mean that in the end, Congress will not act on an immigration bill this year.


'My father came to this country in 1911 when he was 18 because the czar wanted to send him to Siberia," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter. "He preferred Pennsylvania."

Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, made that wry remark from the Senate floor Wednesday during an impassioned debate over America's immigration policy. With each passing hour, fault lines within the Republican Party became more apparent.

The Senate last week began grappling with what could be historic immigration legislation and is leaning toward a so-called "comprehensive" approach. That means two big-picture items are under consideration: tougher border policing and internal security provisions, and solutions as to what to do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here.

The House, in a bill passed Dec. 16, covered only security issues. The bill would criminalize all sorts of offenses associated with illegal immigration that are not now punished by time in prison.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) insisted that this bill, which carries his name, deal only with enforcement. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) went along with the punitive bill mainly to satisfy many anti-immigration conservatives, at least for now. But Hastert knew that no matter what bill the House passed, he would have another bite at the apple if he chose.

A few days ago, Hastert, given a cue from President Bush, revealed more of his hand, mindful that eventually the House and Senate must vote on an immigration bill with the same language if it is to reach the president's desk.

But between December and March, something happened. Demonstrators hit the streets.

No one in Washington anticipated the massive demonstrations the Sensenbrenner bill triggered in Chicago and other big cities last month. Pro-immigration groups, marching in the streets, put pressure on the Senate not to write legislation that includes the central premise of the House bill: that in this nation of immigrants, people here illegally -- and their employers -- could face felony charges.

And something else happened crucial to the immigration debate. The 2008 GOP presidential field started taking shape, and the November midterm elections grew much closer.

For a divided Republican Party, immigration is an issue that could cost them control of the House. This intraparty fight, pitting Bush and business conservatives against isolationist conservatives, could mean that in the end, Congress will not act on an immigration bill this year.

Doing nothing is another option ripening.

'Undoes' much of House bill

It's Thursday, and 10 senators -- four Republicans and six Democrats -- including some of the Senate's biggest names, are standing in a row at a news conference in the Capitol.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) months ago teamed up on the immigration issue with another freshman, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), in an effort by both to become players, even though neither was on the Judiciary Committee. The two became part of a bipartisan working group and were in that news conference lineup.

Earlier in the week, Specter's committee had sent a bipartisan comprehensive bill on immigration to the Senate floor, meeting an artificial deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is considering a 2008 White House bid.

Frist, playing to the right, is not for this immigration bill. His own bill deals only with border security. One drama that will play out this week is whether Frist can block Specter.

Specter's Judiciary Committee bill bulks up border security but omits what the senator calls the "700-mile House of Representatives wall." He prefers instead a virtual guard of unmanned drone planes, patrolling satellites and -- in a few places in Arizona and Texas -- fortified fences.

Most centrally, it "undoes" much of the Sensenbrenner bill, in part with amendments authored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

The Judiciary Committee bill does not threaten millions of illegal immigrants with jail, does not crack down on their employers or humanitarian aid workers who try to help them, and does not force these people to leave the country and then get back in a long line to try to return legally.

It does make it easier for the agricultural industry to legally employ temporary seasonal foreign workers, lets undocumented students stay in school, unites families and creates an 11-year path for illegal immigrants to attain legal status in the United States.

This 11-year process, however, would include significant hurdles: The hopeful applicant would have to keep his or her tax payments current, pass a criminal background check, show continuous employment, pay $2,000 in fines and learn English.

Many of these proposals were in an earlier bill put together by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is mulling another run for president in 2008. The House counterpart to this earlier Senate bill was sponsored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

"This legislation is a defining moment in the history of the United States of America,'' said McCain. "Are we going to continue our rich tradition of hundreds of years of welcoming new blood and new vitality to our nation? Or are we going to adopt a protectionist, isolationist attitude and policies that are in betrayal of the very fundamentals of this great nation of ours, a beacon of hope and liberty and freedom throughout the world?''

Said Kennedy, "We are coming together the way that the United States Congress and Senate came together when we passed the civil rights bills, when we passed the Medicare bills, when we passed the Americans with Disability bills.''

'The smear of amnesty'

Language defines the argument. Amnesty is a hot-button word. What Specter and company so clearly see as "earned citizenship," where people who are here illegally pay a price to gain legal status, opponents call a reward for breaking the law.

Amnesty is a non-starter for some lawmakers. "Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter -- 'A' for amnesty -- and they need to pay for it at the ballot box in November,'' said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

Frist called Specter's bill amnesty from the Senate floor, and Specter said the word is a smear.

"There is an effort far and wide to try to degrade the committee bill by the smear of amnesty," he said, "and it simply is not amnesty."

"Amnesty,'' said Gutierrez, "is complete forgiveness. We are saying no, we just make the penalty fit the violation. They want you to be deported but have no mechanism to be deported. We say, 'You did wrong, and this is the price you have to pay.'"

Specter and company are upbeat.

"I sense momentum for a comprehensive approach,'' said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the 10. "Among the Republican conference, I see a shift toward a comprehensive view to solve this problem. And the more you know about the committee bill, the more people like it."

A key reason for optimism was a strong signal sent from Hastert after Bush again pushed for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill with accommodations for temporary workers. Before 9/11, Bush was staking out immigration reform -- and the creation of a humane solution to smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border -- as a major first term initiative. The attacks in 2001 sidelined those plans. Until, perhaps, now.

Hastert and House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said they are open to revising Sensenbrenner.

"We're looking at all alternatives, and we're not going to discount anything right now," Hastert said. "Our first priority is to protect the border. And we also know that there is a need in some sectors of the economy for a guest worker program. But we want to see what the Senate comes forward with and what goes through the [House-Senate] conference process.''

Gutierrez, who has been working on immigration issues for years, said Hastert in private conversations is "very receptive and positive. I think that Speaker Hastert is not part of a xenophobic cabal that exists in the Republican majority and that he and Boehner are on the same page.''

While the Senate immigration showdown approaches, it is crucial to remember that the House and Senate have to come to an agreement.

But "Sensenbrenner is digging in his heels," said Bay Buchanan, chairwoman of Team America PAC, a political action committee founded by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Col.). Tancredo has made his name leading the charge against illegal immigrants.

Anything close to a McCain-Specter-Kennedy bill sent back to the House will provoke a showdown, Buchanan said.

"The House Republicans will be increasingly more vulnerable to losing the majority in the House, and they know that," she said. Bush and complicit GOP senators "are setting us up for disaster in November."

The last few days have shown there seems to be a majority of Senate Democrats and Republicans coalescing around a comprehensive bill. But neither side may have the 60 votes needed to avoid procedural moves that could bury unsatisfactory legislation.

Republicans don't want to embarrass Bush, Buchanan said.

"I think there is a movement towards doing nothing as of yesterday," she said. "The grumblings have begun, and that may be a better route."

Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.


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3 Comments

When you have the Catholic Bishops, Big Labor, Big Business AND Ted Kennedy and Dick Durbin backing the same issue (another unworkable immigration bill) you know that the working middle class is going to get screwed again.

Our government officials should have concerned themselves with this problem decades ago and passed immigration bills then. I believe the biggest issue in this arguement is whether our country will cease aid to these illegal immigrants, more so than the issue of these people wanting to become Americans. If you notice one thing- we have never seen a demonstration of this kind in such multitude and magnitude in recent history. This means that the illegals can win- just as they did in other Latin American countries where unrest is a byword. Our lawmakers should stick to their guns and follow through on this bill. Otherwise, in the not so very future- we may have a different tone set for the landscape of America which would not benefit our American born citizens or America.

If they do not stick to their guns, mark my words, civil war in the US is closely behind.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on April 2, 2006 8:45 AM.

Robert Novak: Headlines first Chicago Sun-Times/University of Illinois at Chicago lecture forum. April 19 at UIC. Public invited. was the previous entry in this blog.

Obama: On ABC's ``This Week'' said guest worker numbers may have to be reduced on immigration bill. is the next entry in this blog.

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