Frist Pushes For Quick Vote On Immigration

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006

Frustrated by the Senate Judiciary Committee's slow progress on politically sensitive immigration legislation, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) introduced his own bill last night to secure the nation's borders and crack down on illegal immigration.

Frist's bill will go directly to the full Senate. But he said he will allow Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to substitute a committee bill if Specter's panel could approve one March 27. Otherwise, the majority leader will stick to a strict, two-week schedule to finish work on what he conceded would be "as challenging a bill as any we'll have to address this year."

The majority leader's power move stunned committee Republicans and Democrats, who have been struggling for three weeks to reach agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill. Specter said he objected to the maneuver.

"It would be chaos on the floor to have this bill debated without the committee acting first," Specter said yesterday afternoon, only to grudgingly accept Frist's move in the evening.

Some Republican aides said they believed presidential politics were at work. Frist, a prospective candidate for 2008, left out of his bill the guest-worker program that President Bush has demanded and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- a potential White House rival -- has championed. Such a program is unpopular with many conservative voters, who see it as amnesty for illegal immigrants. Many Republicans believe a new law to get tough on illegal immigrants is one of the few pieces of legislation that must be passed before the November elections if the GOP is to maintain the allegiance of conservative voters.

Frist said he was motivated by a belief that only prompt Senate action will allow Senate and House negotiators to reach a compromise on a final bill this year. The House passed in December a border security bill that did not include a guest-worker program.

Senators from both parties have come to near-agreement on provisions bolstering the U.S. border patrol, adding new technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles and raising penalties on illegal immigrants and those who aid them. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) neared agreement yesterday on a guest-worker program that could smooth the way to bipartisan passage of a Judiciary Committee bill when lawmakers return from a week-long break next week.

Under the deal, Kennedy would agree that illegal immigrants who qualify for a guest-worker visa would have to go to their home countries for a year before applying for a visa extension of three or four additional years. But, Senate aides said, that one-year return could be waived if guest workers' employers said their continued labor was necessary or if a guest worker could prove a consistent work history.

With Democrats, Bush and many Republicans favoring a guest-worker program, immigration advocates say no immigration bill can get out of the Senate without one. But House opponents say they have commitments from Republican leaders that no guest-worker program will be considered on the House floor this year.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company