Correction to This Article
An April 12 article misstated the number of amendments brought to a vote as the House debated an immigration bill. It was nine, not seven.

Immigrant Bill Fallout May Hurt House GOP

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

In the wake of this week's massive demonstrations, many House Republicans are worried that a tough anti-illegal-immigration bill they thought would please their political base has earned them little benefit while becoming a lightning rod for the fast-growing national movement for immigrant rights.

House Republicans rushed through legislation just before Christmas that would build hundreds of miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, require that businesses verify the legality of all employees' status through a national database, fortify border patrols, and declare illegal immigrants and those who help them to be felons. After more lenient legislation failed in the Senate last week, the House-passed version burst into the public consciousness this week, as hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country turned out to denounce the bill.

Yesterday, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) issued a joint statement seeking to deflect blame for the harshest provisions of the House bill toward the Democrats, who they said showed a lack of compassion. "It remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony," Hastert and Frist said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) fired back that "there's no running away from the fact that the Republican House passed a bill and Senator Frist offered one that criminalizes immigrants."

House Democrats acknowledged they helped block Republican efforts on the floor in December to soften the Republican-crafted section declaring illegal immigrants to be felons, but they said ultimate responsibility for the bill rests with the Republicans, who voted overwhelmingly for its passage.

"The Democrats were not going to do anything to make it easier for Republicans to pass an atrocious bill," said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Yesterday's maneuvering underscores how the immigration issue has mushroomed into a fierce political debate with potentially large stakes heading into the November congressional elections. The hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets Monday vividly demonstrated the power of the issue, which some strategists say threatens to undercut President Bush's long-standing hope of making Hispanic voters a GOP constituency.

"There was political calculation that they could make this the wedge issue of 2006 and 2008, but it's not playing out that way," said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). "This has galvanized and energized the Latino community like no other issue I have seen in two decades, and that's going to have electoral consequences."

Republicans say they could accept that sentiment if they believed they had won political points from the GOP's restive base. But for all the negatives, they don't have many positives to show for their efforts.

"From the standpoint of those who would applaud the House's stand, I'd say we have not gotten sufficient credit," said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a reliable supporter of House leaders. "I'm somewhat distressed that they have not gotten word of what we've done."

The politics of the issue have shifted markedly since the House acted. Republican lawmakers are increasingly saying they will now consider some avenue to grant illegal immigrants access to lawful employment. And Democrats who voted for the House bill with an eye on their political futures or to preempt feared attacks from conservatives are rethinking their position.

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), a supporter of the bill, was greeted by protesters and shouts of "Migration is not a crime" in February when he opened his Ohio gubernatorial campaign office in Cleveland. Now, he regrets his vote, campaign spokesman Jess Goode said.

The 36 Democrats who voted for passage included Rep. John T. Salazar (Colo.) -- whose brother, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), has railed against the House measure -- and Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (Tenn.), who may find it difficult to tap into the mobilizing Latino vote in his run for the Senate this year.

Although much has been made of the failed efforts in the Senate last week to forge a bipartisan measure to toughen border security while creating a system to allow many of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants here to achieve legal status or citizenship, the actions in the House late last year have received little attention until now.

House GOP leaders had rushed lawmakers back to Washington for a rare December session to vote on the immigration measure, hoping to give their members an accomplishment to brag about over the long winter recess. But it was the deft maneuvering of Democrats that preserved the bill's most infamous provision, declaring illegal immigrants felons, and that provision has helped turn the bill into a political albatross for some Republicans, Democrats say.

The bill, written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), was passed in a matter of hours, nine days before Christmas. Just seven amendments were allowed to come to a vote, none of them fundamentally altering the legislation.

Sensenbrenner's committee bill included the felony provision, but when he took it to the House floor Dec. 16, he offered an amendment to downgrade the offense of being an undocumented worker from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The Democratic leadership pushed its members to vote against the amendment, and 191 Democrats did. Only eight Democrats voted with Sensenbrenner.

"It was an ugly bill in most respects, the felony stuff, the wall and no amendments," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who tried to add a guest-worker provision but was not allowed a vote. "The leadership saw this more as a statement than a policy, but I think in the end we would have been better off had we been more deliberative."

With so little debate, media coverage was minimal, and what coverage there was got little notice in the holiday bustle, Republicans say.

"We're victims of our own success," said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.).

Sensenbrenner's bill is getting attention now, not so much from Republican-base voters but from Spanish-language radio shows and Latino activists who have made it the focus of marches that have drawn more than a million protesters. One sign on the Mall Monday read "Sense, not Sensenbrenner."

In a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week, Sensenbrenner charged that all but eight Democrats "decided to play political game by voting to make all illegal immigrants felons."

But Democratic votes alone did not seal the defeat. Sixty-five Republicans voted against it, too, including anti-immigrant firebrands such as Rep. J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.) and moderates such as Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.). Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio) voted against the amendment and the bill just weeks before he was elected majority leader.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company