Senate to Weigh Guest-Worker Proposal

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who opposes the guest worker program, said yesterday that controversy and complexity may hinder the committee bill.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who opposes the guest worker program, said yesterday that controversy and complexity may hinder the committee bill. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

With the Republican Party deeply divided, the Senate will take up a broad revision of the nation's immigration laws today amid signs that conservatives are ready to compromise on efforts to offer illegal immigrants new avenues to lawful employment.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will move forward with his legislation to bolster border security and toughen laws against illegal immigration without a guest-worker program. But Frist agreed to allow Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to quickly move to substitute the more lenient bill that passed his committee Monday, and Specter appears to have more than enough votes to do so.

That bill would couple border security measures with provisions that would allow millions of undocumented workers to apply for legal work visas and move toward U.S. citizenship, while offering hundreds of thousands of foreign workers access to the U.S. workplace.

The committee's bill is a sharp break from the get-tough approach approved by the House in December, which rebuffed President Bush's call for a guest-worker program and focuses exclusively on border security and immigration law enforcement.

The committee measure also places Frist -- a potential 2008 White House candidate -- in a difficult position. The panel approved its immigration overhaul by a comfortable 12 to 6 margin, with four Republicans siding with the panel's Democrats. But most committee Republicans opposed the bill. There may be as many as a dozen Republicans backing the Judiciary Committee bill in the full Senate, but on an issue so fraught with political consequences, it is not yet clear that Frist will allow the Senate to pass immigration legislation that cannot garner the support of most Republicans.

"Under the best of circumstances, most bills don't make it. And this bill is more complicated and in many ways more controversial than usual," warned Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who opposed the committee's bill.

Still, with voters clamoring for action and hundreds of thousands of immigrants marching against the House's proposals, GOP leaders signaled a willingness to compromise. The committee's bill, which largely mirrors legislation written by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), goes considerably further than Bush's proposals, but after a meeting with the president, McCain declared, "I got the impression that he's happy."

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said that he hopes the Senate will pass what he called "a responsible border security bill," but he indicated he is willing to rethink the House approach. After meeting with ranchers and law enforcement officers on the U.S.-Mexican border, Boehner said those living on the frontier do not think the House-passed border wall would work.

"If the people on the border don't believe that the wall will have the effect that people here think, then we ought to reconsider it," he said.

Boehner also said he knows of no promises that House GOP leaders have given to anti-immigration firebrands to block House consideration of a guest-worker program.

Under the Judiciary Committee bill, illegal immigrants who pay a $1,000 fine and back taxes would be able to apply for a three-year work visa, renewable for a second three-year period. In the fourth year of work, the visa holder could begin a five-year path toward citizenship. A second guest-worker program would open up legal agriculture jobs to 1.5 million undocumented farmworkers.

The measure would also add as many as 14,000 border patrol agents by 2011 to the current force of 11,300 agents and would authorize a "virtual wall" of unmanned vehicles, cameras and sensors to monitor the U.S.-Mexican border.

Unlike the House bill, it would not make illegal immigrants and those who assist them into felons, nor would it authorize the construction of massive new walls along 700 miles of the southern border.

Republican opponents of the committee bill said they would wait to see what amendments pass the Senate before they consider a filibuster of the measure. Citing the passion of his constituents, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) hinted at how politically difficult a filibuster would be. "We need to do something," he said.

"You don't filibuster away the problem of 11 million undocumented workers," warned Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a supporter of the bill. "You don't filibuster away the idea that our borders are broken and our legal system's a failure on immigration."

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