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Immigration Pushes Apart GOP, Chamber

The information often came to them during regularly scheduled meetings with lawmakers and their top aides. The closed-door sessions enabled them to work closely with Republicans to help fund and provide foot soldiers for a string of pro-business successes ranging from tax cuts to free-trade agreements.

This time many of the same industry organizations are writing angry letters, deploying lobbyists and ginning up e-mails, phone calls and faxes from their members across the country to protest the Republican immigration bill. Among the groups complaining about the House bill is Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative association led by Grover G. Norquist, who is one of the Republicans' most loyal advocates.

In a letter to congressmen last week, Norquist criticized the immigration measure because it "probably creates unworkable hardships on the private sector, as well as raising significant privacy concerns for all Americans." In a separate letter, R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the chamber, expressed "disappointment" in the bill.

Business interests and congressional Republicans have sometimes differed in recent years, but usually on relatively minor matters. The chamber doesn't want every aspect of the USA Patriot Act to be extended for example, and Republican leaders have been reluctant to extend terrorism reinsurance legislation, which is a top priority of several corporate groups.

But those disputes haven't produced the kind of showdown that is threatening in the House this week. Lobbyists reached yesterday couldn't remember the last time that prominent business groups listed a vote against the Republican leadership as a "key vote" determining their organizations' view of a lawmaker's record.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), a former restaurateur and Chamber of Commerce member, believes the business groups are out of sync with public opinion. "There's a little disconnect here between some of the [business] leaders in the Washington, D.C., area versus the folks out here in the country who recognize we have a problem," he said.

"It's just one issue trumping another issue," agreed Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) "The whole issue of reining in illegal immigration is more significant than accommodating business concerns." He added that he did not think the guilty plea of former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) or other lobbying-related scandals recently have anything to do with the spat.

In the meantime, corporate organizations will be pushing to defeat the basic Republican bill or to amend it in ways that add a guest worker program or ease its verification and penalty requirements. They also will be looking to the Senate for a comprehensive measure that is more to their liking.

"It's not over till it's over," Josten said.

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