Immigration Bill Lobbying Focuses on House Leaders

"That is a buzzword for amnesty, and amnesty is a non-starter with the American people," Rep. James Sensenbrenner said of the Bush citizenship proposal. (By Kevin Wolf -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 1, 2006

President Bush's growing confidence that he will secure a victory on immigration runs in direct contrast to the House Republican leadership, which is prepared to block legislation that offers illegal immigrants a path to citizenship without sending them home.

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders are closing in on a bipartisan deal to secure the nation's borders, create a guest-worker program for foreign workers and offer citizenship to illegal immigrants who clear certain hurdles.

Assuming agreement is reached in the Senate, White House advisers said Bush believes that he can count on House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other leaders to rally skeptical House Republicans behind legislation. But the White House may be underestimating the degree of opposition from within his party, according to several GOP members and aides.

GOP leaders are open to a compromise, but not one that involves a centerpiece of the carefully calibrated Senate approach -- allowing illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship as long as they pay a penalty and back taxes, learn English, remain employed and crime-free and get in line.

"That is certainly not the view of the House," said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who reiterated the House Republican view that the border must be secured before lawmakers even consider offering illegal immigrants guest-worker visas or citizenship.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the chief architect of the House-passed bill that would crack down on illegal immigration without providing avenues for lawful employment, much less citizenship, was equally direct. In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week, Sensenbrenner said he was "disturbed" by Bush's recent pronouncements on a pathway to citizenship.

Immigration policy will provide the next important test of Bush's second-term vitality, as he overhauls his White House staff and tries to reverse his low standing in the polls before this fall's midterm elections.

But he will do so in the face of an increasingly fractious party -- a problem he rarely had in the first term.

At an appearance April 24 in California, Bush said, "A person ought to be allowed to . . . pay a penalty for being here illegally, commit him or herself to learn English, which is part of the American system, and get in the back of the line" for citizenship.

Sensenbrenner was not impressed.

"That is a buzzword for amnesty, and amnesty is a non-starter with the American people," he said.

The new GOP leadership team -- which has promised to take its marching orders from House Republicans, not from Bush -- could prove an insurmountable obstacle, despite Senate progress. In Bush's first term, House GOP leaders were a Bush beachhead, passing his agenda and helping force it into law. But with Bush's popularity sinking and the prospect of losing House seats increasing, GOP leaders are putting the interests of their members first.

Hastert has said he is willing to look at the guest-worker and citizenship provisions the Senate produces. But, House Republican leadership aides said, the consensus of the rank-and-file is that conservatives do not want to reward people who broke the law. Most simply want to see more secure borders and better enforcement of current laws.

Before considering the fate of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, Blunt said, the flow of illegal immigrants must be stopped.

"Why deal with 13 million people when you can stop it at 12?" Blunt asked. "It has to stop somewhere."

With passage in December of the House's get-tough immigration law, Republican leadership aides say the GOP has done its part to insulate its members from growing anger over illegal immigration. Large immigrant rallies against the House bill have done nothing to shake that belief, Blunt said. If anything, the images of a sea of immigrants, many of them illegal and many waving foreign flags, have bolstered the get-tough views of most Republican constituents.

"I think they're hardening positions," Blunt said of the rallies, with another round planned for today. "It just convinces the people we work for that the problem is bigger than they knew."

Sensenbrenner spokesman Jeff E. Lungren pointed to an "Insider's Poll" of 12 Senate Republicans, 46 House Republicans, six Senate Democrats, 46 House Democrats and one Senate independent that the National Journal published Friday. Half of the Republicans polled -- by far the largest number -- said immigration was the biggest issue on their constituents' minds. Energy prices came next with 34 percent, followed at a distance by Iraq, which topped the constituent concerns of just 5 percent of lawmakers polled.

In contrast, Democrats -- who have embraced the most generous path to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- appear to have great leeway on the issue. About 55 percent of Democratic lawmakers said their constituents are most concerned about energy prices, followed by the 24 percent who pointed to Iraq. Immigration, at the top of Republican worries, was at the bottom of Democratic concerns. Only 3 percent said it was most on constituent minds.

National polls may be pressuring Republicans in the Senate to bend. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicates Hispanics, who overwhelmingly support the Senate deal, prefer Democrats in the congressional elections, 55 percent to 22 percent.

But unlike senators, who represent whole states and a broader range of opinions, most House members come from districts with more homogeneous political views -- often polarized on the left or right of the spectrum.

White House aides said Bush does not believe Hastert is opposed to a deal similar to the one making its way through the Senate. These aides consider Hastert persuadable, and said the speaker's opposition is a reflection of the politics of the moment. Bush is focusing on getting a Senate deal and then lobbying a more resistant House.

A top GOP leadership aide said Hastert does want an immigration deal before the August recess to defuse the political situation before the November election. But the speaker's personal views may actually be softer than the Republican conference as a whole.

A senior White House adviser said Bush is very sensitive to the anti-immigration sentiments raging among some conservative activists and lawmakers. In a private meeting last week with senators, Bush said he supports giving illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship without leaving but did not want to trumpet his position in public for fear of alienating conservatives in the House, participants said. A senior aide said Bush will have to thread the needle to get a deal and does not want to provoke a premature fight with House conservatives.

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