By DAVID ESPO
The Associated Press
Friday, May 12, 2006; 12:46 AM
WASHINGTON -- After months of partisan maneuvering, Senate passage of sweeping immigration legislation is virtually assured by Memorial Day. But that scarcely ends the struggle in Congress, given the vast differences between President Bush and House Republicans over the fate of millions of illegal immigrants.
The substance of the Senate bill is unlikely to change significantly from the measure that was stuck in gridlock more than a month ago. It includes additional border security, a new guest worker program and provisions opening the way to eventual citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
What changed was that after weeks of exchanging insults, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed on a procedural compromise that gives the bill's critics ample opportunity to offer amendments. It also offers assurances to Democrats that Senate negotiators will not simply capitulate to demands of House conservatives in talks on compromise legislation later in the year.
However briefly, nearly everyone seemed pleased.
"We congratulate the Senate on reaching agreement and we look forward to passage of a bill prior to Memorial Day," said Dana Perino, deputy White House press secretary. Reid and Frist exchanged compliments on the Senate floor. Mexico's foreign secretary said in a statement that the deal was a "positive step toward the approval of a migration accord."
Everyone but House Republicans, many of whom criticize the Senate's bill as an amnesty measure. And possibly House Democrats, who, ironically enough, seem to share the White House view of the political implications of immigration. They are eager to campaign against Republicans responsible for last year's bill to make all illegal immigrants subject to felony charges.
Looking ahead, the White House is searching for ways to assure conservatives that Bush understands their concerns. White House strategist Karl Rove met with lawmakers earlier in the week, and at least one session included a discussion about making greater use of National Guard troops to shore up border security.
"Nobody is suggesting that we put troops on the border," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who attended the session. "We are suggesting there are plenty of resources in the government" to increase border security, at least in an interim period while provisions in the pending legislation take hold, he said.
"The National Guard can in some cases help do that," he added. Other lawmakers said they expected Bush to announce border security improvements next week, possibly in a speech in Arizona or another border states.
The differences between Bush and House Republicans flared dramatically when the Senate appeared on the verge of agreement on a comprehensive bill several weeks ago. Several GOP conservatives denounced the bill as an amnesty measure and Rep. Steve King of Iowa said anyone who voted for it should be "branded with a scarlet letter A."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., offered his view of the importance of immigrant labor: "I say let the prisoners pick the fruits."
In political terms, Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and others said Republicans would pay a price in the midterm elections if they vote for anything like the Senate legislation. "Many of those who have stood for the Republican Party for the last decade are not only angry. They will be absent in November," Hayworth said.
Given Bush's recent erosion of support among conservatives, as measured in polls, there's been no evident change in sentiment among his congressional critics.
The political calculations are different at the White House. Hispanics comprise the nation's fastest growing minority, according to this line of reasoning, and no political party can afford to be seen as blind or even hostile to their concerns and the desire of their relatives to join them in the United States.
Bush and top House Republicans reviewed the issue last week at a private White House meeting, according to several officials, and the president urged the GOP congressional leadership to embrace his call for comprehensive legislation. That means provisions to strengthen border security, coupled with a guest worker program that _ while the president doesn't say so in public _ provides a chance at citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. and other leaders stressed that would be a hard sell with their rank and file. Bush restated his desire for a comprehensive bill, and the leadership responded by noting the sentiment of the rank and file, according to officials familiar with the conversation. They spoke on condition of anonymity, given the private nature of the meetings.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.