Immigration Proposals Pass Test In Senate
Guest-Worker And Citizenship Provisions Survive

By Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A fragile Senate coalition backing a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws survived its first legislative test yesterday, beating back efforts to gut provisions to grant millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and hundreds of thousands of foreigners a new guest-worker permit.

But President Bush's efforts to win House conservatives to his immigration proposals still faced an uphill climb. A day after a prime-time televised address to the nation, Bush continued to make his case yesterday that immigration legislation must be comprehensive -- tightening control of the borders, offering a new temporary guest-worker visa to foreign workers, and offering most illegal immigrants a path to lawful employment and citizenship.

"In order for us to solve the problem of an immigration system that's not working, it's really important for Congress to understand . . . that the elements I described all go hand in hand," Bush said in a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

But House Republicans, who passed legislation last year to crack down on illegal immigration without offering new avenues to legal employment, were not budging.

"I understand what the president's position is. I have made it pretty clear that I have supported the House position," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The legislative action in the Senate, coupled with the response to Bush's speech in the House, underscored how difficult it will be for Congress to produce a compromise that can reach the president's desk. With conservative activists including National Review editors and Rush Limbaugh lambasting the speech, the White House dispatched Vice President Cheney to calm the party's base.

In an interview on Limbaugh's nationally broadcast radio show, Cheney said the White House is well aware of "legitimate concerns out there on the part of a lot of folks" and is moving quickly to address them. Cheney said the president has "given serious consideration" to erecting a wall along parts of the southern border to keep illegal immigrants out.

"We think you've got to address all those aspects and facets of the problem," he said. "And where appropriate, fences or security barriers make good sense."

But in the Senate, the bipartisan coalition appears to be holding behind broad-based legislation that would tighten border controls, create a new guest-worker program, and offer illegal immigrants who have been in the country at least five years a legal work permit and a path to citizenship. Undocumented workers who have been here for more than two years but less than five would have to return to a border crossing to receive a temporary work permit and then apply for a green card. Illegal immigrants who have been here less than two years would have to return home.

Senators voted 55 to 40 to kill an amendment, offered by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), that would have prohibited the implementation of any guest-worker program for illegal immigrants until the secretary of homeland security certified that the bill's border security provisions were fully funded and operational.

Supporters called it a "common-sense approach" that would have avoided a repeat of a 1986 amnesty program that legalized millions of undocumented workers but failed to secure the border. But opponents said it would effectively kill the compromise by putting off the guest-worker programs for years.

A few hours later, the coalition voted 69 to 28 to kill an amendment by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would have eliminated the central plank of Bush's immigration policy, a program to offer temporary guest-worker visas to 325,000 foreign workers a year. Dorgan and some union leaders said the program would "in-source" a steady flow of cheap labor that would compete for low-skilled jobs, lowering wages for everyone.

The Dorgan proposal appeared to be gaining steam when conservatives received a Heritage Foundation study concluding that the Senate's guest-worker program would allow an estimated 103 million foreigners to legally immigrate to the United States over 20 years. A rush of Senate Republicans first voted to support Dorgan but switched their votes under pressure from Senate GOP leaders, who feared an embarrassing rebuke to the president a day after his national address.

The Senate did overwhelmingly back an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that capped the number of guest-worker visas at 200,000. The original version would offer 325,000 visas a year, plus up to 20 percent more each year when that total was reached.

Senators both for and against the immigration measure expressed confidence that the bill will be passed by the end of next week. But the Senate's progress appeared only to entrench Republican opposition in the House. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) pronounced Bush's speech "unconvincing." Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) pronounced himself "annoyed." And Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) declared that Bush had "insulted a lot of people" and "made the situation worse."

At least 73 House Republicans have signed a letter saying they will never accept any plan that offers legal work and citizenship to undocumented workers, and House Republican leadership aides said that number is likely to climb.

"I don't underestimate the difficulty in the House and Senate coming to an agreement on this issue," Boehner said, "but I do think it is possible."

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