Immigration Debate Is Shaped by '08 Election

President Bush talks about immigration in a meeting with several groups in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. He said his guest-worker proposal
President Bush talks about immigration in a meeting with several groups in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. He said his guest-worker proposal "encourages people to register their presence so that we know who they are." (Pool Photo By Getty Images)
By Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 24, 2006

President Bush's effort to secure lawful employment opportunities for illegal immigrants is evolving into an early battle of the 2008 presidential campaign, as his would-be White House successors jockey for position ahead of next week's immigration showdown in the Senate.

Bush called on Congress yesterday to tone down the increasingly sharp and divisive rhetoric over immigration, as he renewed his push for a guest-worker plan that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to continue working in the United States. But Bush's political sway is already weakened by public unease about the war in Iraq and by Republican divisions.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whom Bush helped elect as party leader, is threatening to bring a new immigration bill to the Senate floor early next week. It would tighten control of the nation's borders without creating the guest-worker program the president wants.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a rival of Frist's for the Republican nomination, is promoting Bush's call for tougher border security and the guest-worker program as he embraces the president to shore up his standing with Republican leaders. In the House, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) is garnering support for a long-shot presidential bid with his fierce anti-immigration rhetoric.

And after weeks of sitting on the sidelines, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) jumped into the immigration debate Wednesday. She declared that Republican efforts to criminalize undocumented workers and their support networks "would literally criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."

Presidential politics "makes it that much more difficult, of course," said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a strong Bush ally on the issue. "You would hope three years out that we could tamp that out and focus on the policy questions at stake, but maybe that's not possible."

For Republican presidential candidates, immigration offers up a difficult choice: Appeal to conservatives eager to clamp down on illegal immigration who could buoy your position in the primaries, or take a moderate stand to win independents and the growing Latino vote, which could be vital to winning the general election.

"The short-term politics of this are pretty clear. The long-term politics are pretty clear. And they're both at odds," said Mike Buttry, a spokesman for Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), another potential GOP presidential candidate.

Senators had hoped to avoid such acrimony when the Judiciary Committee began drafting its immigration bill early this month. Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) had vowed to write a bipartisan proposal that would bridge conservative demands for much tougher border enforcement with calls from both parties for a guest-worker program to meet the demand for unskilled labor and to address the 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

But after progress slowed, Frist short-circuited the process. He announced that the Senate will take up border security and immigration enforcement measures on Tuesday -- without a guest-worker component -- if Specter cannot produce a bill by Monday.

Frist has not ruled out a guest-worker program. But conservatives' grumbling about the president's program found a Senate voice yesterday when Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) announced that he will not accept such a program until "we have proven without a doubt that our borders are sealed and secure."

At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) promised this week to filibuster Frist's enforcement-only bill.

"If the majority leader is . . . going to bring his own bill to the floor, dealing with only one of the problems we have with immigration, then I will use every procedural means at my disposal to stop that," Reid said on CNN.

The fight next week will test Republican unity on an issue with social, political and national security implications. Adding to the tumult will be House Republican leaders, who muscled through an immigration enforcement bill in December and plan a series of events in the coming days to trumpet border security.

The debate will also serve as a test of Bush's ability to sway an increasingly restive Republican Congress on an issue he has championed since his first term. In recent months, under pressure from GOP lawmakers, Bush has retreated from focusing mostly on the guest-worker program to giving equal billing to border security.

"But part of enforcing our borders is to have a guest-worker program that encourages people to register their presence so that we know who they are, and says to them, 'If you're doing a job an American won't do, you're welcome here for a period of time to do that job,' " Bush said after meeting with groups involved in the immigration fight.

The leading bills all seek to bolster border enforcement with more police on the frontier and more technology tracking illegal crossings. But a bill co-sponsored by McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) breaks with Specter's proposal by offering an easier road to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Specter also goes further to exact punishment on illegal immigrants who seek to obtain a guest-worker permit, and his measure could punish those who help illegal immigrants, even church groups that offer shelter. Frist has taken the border security and immigration enforcement provisions from Specter's bill, while leaving behind his guest-worker program.

Guest-worker proposals would allow businesses to offer special work visas to illegal immigrants already in the country if they can show that U.S. workers will not take the positions. The visas would last for up to six years under the leading Senate proposals, but senators are divided over whether workers would have to return to their home countries for a year before qualifying for a renewal.

White House aides said Bush remains deeply committed to the guest-worker program, despite resistance from conservatives, and is certain it will help expand the party's support in Florida and in the Southwest, which is emerging as a key battleground in national elections.

Former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.) said the debate over welfare reform in the 1990s should serve as the model for compromise on immigration today.

"The middle of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have a responsibility to tackle and solve this issue," he said.

Kolbe said it is increasingly unlikely Congress will reach an agreement that could make it to the president's desk.

"I don't think this fire is easily extinguished," he said. "Rarely have I seen an issue that divides people so clearly, with so little possibility of seeking a middle ground."

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