By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Backers of President Bush's bid to revamp immigration laws scored another small victory in the Senate yesterday, but they are increasingly concerned about a House Republican policy that could block final agreement even if a bipartisan majority is within reach.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's insistence that major legislation reach the House floor only if it appears to be backed by a "majority of the majority" could throw a high hurdle in front of efforts to reach a House-Senate compromise on immigration later this year, lawmakers said. Hastert (R-Ill.) has invoked the policy in blocking bills that appeared likely to win approval from more than half of the House's 435 members but less than half of its 231 Republicans.
That is the scenario that could emerge in the House this summer, sources say, because the immigration debate divides both parties along unusual lines. It is possible, they said, that enough House Democrats and Republicans -- but not a majority of the Republicans -- could support a version of the legislation backed by Bush and most senators to enact it into law.
But Hastert would prevent House action on such a measure under his leadership policy, spokesman Ron Bonjean said yesterday. Hastert still embraces the majority-of-a-majority rule -- first enunciated in a 2003 speech -- "and he intends to do so with any immigration bill that comes out of [a House-Senate] conference," Bonjean said.
One Republican senator, speaking on background to avoid inflaming colleagues, called the policy "a death-blow standard."
Others used more diplomatic language to express their worries. "I hope we will realize that our majority is at stake if we fail to deliver on an important issue like immigration," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. "If it is perceived by the public that the Republican Party -- which owns the House, the Senate and the White House -- cannot solve hard problems working with Democrats, then we will lose our majorities."
Graham backs a bipartisan immigration measure that continued its path through the Senate yesterday in a form that many believe will result in final passage this week, with Bush's blessing. The Senate voted 50 to 43 to kill an amendment by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) -- a sharp critic of the bill -- that would have established a "prevailing wage" for immigrant farmworkers covered by the measure. Critics said the proposal would have led to workers toiling for less than the minimum wage.
The Senate then voted 83 to 10 to approve Bush's plan to send National Guard troops to help patrol the Mexican border. Tours of duty are limited to 21 days, and troops would be excluded from "search, seizure, arrest or similar activity" under the measure sponsored by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) filed a "cloture motion" designed to keep the bill's opponents from using endless debate to delay a vote beyond this week.
The Senate action keeps the chamber on a collision course with the House. The House in December passed an immigration bill that dealt only with provisions to toughen border and workplace enforcement. The Senate, with Bush's support, is working toward a more comprehensive bill that would include routes for some of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship.
Senate leaders predict final passage by week's end. That would trigger a House-Senate conference committee charged with the arduous task of crafting a compromise between the two versions. No final bill can reach the president's desk unless both chambers vote for it.
That is where Hastert's policy could prove decisive, lawmakers said, because many House Republicans -- and quite possibly most of them -- oppose what they call "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Chambliss, who spent eight years in the House, said in an interview that he could "not imagine" a majority of House Republicans supporting the measure making its way through the Senate.
A House GOP leadership aide, who spoke on background to be more candid, said Hastert and his lieutenants will not be persuaded by Bush to embrace a conference report opposed by most GOP members. "There's a feeling that no bill is better than a bill that further alienates our base and divides the [Republican] conference," the aide said.
Hastert's majority policy has drawn criticism, but he has stood by it. In November 2004 Hastert scuttled a major bill to revamp the government's intelligence operation -- even though he, Bush and most House members backed it -- because most House Republicans opposed it. Explaining his views in a little-noticed 2003 speech at the Capitol, Hastert said: "On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority. . . . The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority."
Some GOP strategists predict a bill will emerge from the House-Senate conference that will win most House Republicans' approval but will draw the opposition of most Senate Democrats and enough Republicans to kill it. Senators know the bill they are handling "is not going to survive in conference," said Charles Black, a veteran GOP adviser with close ties to the White House. A measure closer to the House version will emerge, Black predicted, "and Senate Democrats will kill the conference report. And then who killed immigration reform?"