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The Great Senate Immigr'A'tion Debate

Rep. Steve King, center:
Rep. Steve King, center: "Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter 'A.' " (By Kevin Lemarque -- Reuters)

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By Dana Milbank
Friday, March 31, 2006

It was all fire and brimstone as House Republicans gathered yesterday in the Capitol basement to denounce their Senate counterparts for proposing to legalize illegal immigrants.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), behind a pulpit adorned with a "Just Say No to Amnesty" sign, thundered: "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."

Stand down, Hester Prynne. Adultery is so 17th-century.

At the precise moment the House GOP was turning all puritanical, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), author of the Senate legislation, was in the television studio announcing that he would not wear the "A" for amnesty. "There is an effort far and wide to try to degrade the committee bill by the smear of amnesty, and it simply is not amnesty," he said -- repeating his denial four times in a minute.

The world's greatest deliberative body is at it again. The Senate has begun a momentous debate about securing the nation's borders, and what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants already here. So far, however, the lawmakers have not advanced much beyond a linguistic debate about the meaning of the A-word.

"I believe we have a bill which is not justifiably categorized as amnesty," Specter announced.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) countered that the Senate bill is "what most Americans will see as amnesty."

"It is not amnesty," Specter rebutted. "This word 'amnesty' is a code word. It is a code word to try to smear good-faith legislation."

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), the chamber's lone immigrant, said the "loudest voices" should not "make a definition of what amnesty is and what amnesty should be."

The loud-voiced Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was unmoved. "In every sense of what people mean by amnesty, it's amnesty," he said. "If it's not amnesty, it's the same thing as amnesty. That's just what it is." The Alabama lexicographer brandished the scarlet letter a half-dozen times more. "By any standard definition of the word 'amnesty,' this bill has it," Sessions maintained. "I know that's a loaded word, and I don't want to be playing around demagogically with the word 'amnesty.' "

One man's amnesty, of course, is another man's "earned citizenship," as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) put it yesterday. The legislation, for the record, would pardon immigrants' illegal entry if they pay a fine and back taxes, go through a background investigation and learn English.

But the use of the word "amnesty" -- more than 50 times on the Senate floor yesterday -- says much about the immigration debate. Proponents of the "guest-worker" path toward legalization appear to have gained the upper hand; Specter seems to have the votes in the Senate, and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is rethinking his chamber's hostility to a guest-worker plan. Opponents, therefore, need to escalate the rhetoric and invoke the A-word.


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