Debate on How to Reshape Law Has Divided Republicans

By Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 21, 2006

While President Bush was on the U.S.-Mexican border Thursday promoting an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, Senate conservatives were persuading a team of White House aides to deny 200,000 low-skilled immigrants citizenship.

In a series of private meetings, the conservatives thought they had convinced the Bush team that as many as 200,000 low-skilled workers who enter the United States under special work visas should not be allowed to stay forever. The plan thrilled conservatives -- but also threatened to rip apart a fragile coalition supporting Bush's call for a comprehensive, and compassionate, immigration solution.

Just as conservatives were declaring White House support for the controversial amendment, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) stormed to the Senate floor to announce that new White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten had assured him that the president now opposed the measure in the name of preserving bipartisan backing. The plan was promptly defeated, and the delicate pro-reform coalition held. For now.

This late-night White House about-face -- as described by senators, House lawmakers and presidential aides -- illustrates the difficulties Bush will confront in the months ahead as he seeks what he calls "the rational middle ground" in the emotional immigration debate. Lately, the issue has seemed to operate by a political version of Newton's third law: For every action Bush takes to reassure skeptics in his own party, there is likely to be an equal reaction by supporters of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Congress, like the public, is deeply divided over the fairest and safest way to crack down on illegal immigration while dealing with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States with no plans to leave.

The sharpest divide is the one cleaving Bush's party. On one side are Republicans such as Hagel who support a solution that tightens the borders, toughens enforcement of current laws and provides millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship. On the other is a large group of conservatives, such as powerful House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who want to lock down the borders and deny illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

Bush is trying to thread the needle by pushing the Senate to back enough get-tough measures to placate deeply skeptical conservatives in the House, aides said. The strategy is predicated on first getting the Senate to pass with the widest possible margin a bipartisan bill that would tighten border security and would provide millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship. Then the president and his aides plan to shift their attention to the House.

A senior Bush adviser noted that House conservatives are themselves divided, pointing to Thursday's trip to Arizona as an illustration. Aboard Air Force One, conservative Reps. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and John Shadegg (Ariz.) suggested to Bush that they are prepared to back a plan that would offer many illegal immigrants a new route to citizenship, according to the official. But Bush's biggest obstacle is the House GOP leadership team, including Majority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), who are cool to the Bush plan. "The ice ain't going to break overnight, we know," the Bush adviser said.

To win members over, Bush has inserted himself into the debate as never before. The White House took the unusual step last week of publicly and privately backing specific amendments, including one to erect a 370-mile border fence and another to make English the national language. This came after White House spokesman Tony Snow said earlier in the week that Bush is not in the business of endorsing amendments. The flip underscores White House concern about losing the debate.

The dilemma played out publicly Thursday night, when Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) tried to amend the bill to stipulate that the 200,000 low-skilled immigrants allowed to enter the country under a new temporary-worker visa would have to leave when the visa expired. With Bush and his top political aides in Arizona, conservative Republican aides persuaded lower-level White House staff members to back the amendment, reasoning that Bush has always said he backs a "temporary worker program," not a permanent funnel of immigrants to the United States.

"It was a matter of truth in advertising," Cornyn said.

When word reached the backers of the compromise, they were furious, according to a senior Republican Senate aide involved in the events. Immigrant groups such as the National Council of La Raza and the National Immigration Forum had said they would withdraw their support for the Senate bill if the amendment passed. With no prospects for equality under the law, temporary workers would become a permanent underclass, like immigrant laborers in France, they reasoned. And if temporary workers were not offered a path to citizenship, they would simply go underground when their visas expired, re-creating the problem of illegal immigration.

"It just sucks the life out of a viable reform package," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, the umbrella immigrants' rights group backing the Senate compromise.

But the Republican players were unavailable. Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) was on his way to his son's wedding. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) had left Washington for commencement ceremonies. Hagel was in secret hearings with Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the president's nominee to direct the CIA.

Calls from aides to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove went unanswered because he was at a dinner. Finally, after nightfall, first Hagel, then Graham and Martinez reached Bolten from the road, telling him passage of the amendment would destroy the coalition and scuttle the legislation. They pleaded with him to call off the White House lobbyists.

After 8 p.m., a succession of conservatives went to the Senate floor to declare Bush's support for their amendment to ensure that temporary work visas really would be temporary.

Then Hagel walked onto the floor, announcing that he and his allies had just gotten off the phone with the White House chief of staff, who had assured them that Bush opposed the amendment.

"The American people have a very low opinion of you, of me, of the Congress, of the president. Read the latest polls," Hagel thundered. "Why are the American people upset with us? Because we are not doing our job. We talk about, 'Let's run to the base. Let's run to the political lowest common denominator.' That is not governing. That is cheap, transparent politics."

Cornyn fired back, "I recognize this is what some have called a 'fragile compromise' -- that if we tinker with it, all of a sudden it implodes and nothing is going to happen." But if compromise supporters "think that they have found some adversaries" in the Senate, he warned, "just wait until they get to the conference with members of the House."

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