House-Senate Battle On Immigration Likely

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

With the Senate marching toward completion of an immigration bill that is more generous to illegal immigrants than the House-passed version, House leaders said yesterday that it will be difficult to reach a compromise and enact a measure.

Several House Republicans said an accord is possible only if President Bush pours his full energy into the effort, which they say is an uncertain prospect given his preoccupation with Iraq, his low poll numbers and GOP skittishness about November's elections.

The Senate yesterday continued to reject amendments that may threaten the shaky alliance behind a bill that Bush supports. The measure, sponsored by GOP Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.) and slated for a final vote this week, combines tougher border security with pathways to legal status for millions of immigrants and a guest-worker program.

The House bill, passed in December, deals only with tougher border and workplace enforcement efforts. Numerous House Republicans and some Democrats support that version, lawmakers said, and they are urging colleagues to resist the president's call to move closer to the Senate's approach this summer.

Senators voted 61 to 37 to reject an amendment that would have allowed the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work toward citizenship, if they have no criminal records. It would have upended the Hagel-Martinez provision to divide illegal immigrants into three categories: those here five years or longer, who could stay and pursue citizenship; those here two to five years, who could apply for green-card status after leaving the country; and those here less than two years, who would be ordered home.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), sponsor of the unsuccessful amendment, said the three-tiered approach is unworkable and "would create a bureaucratic nightmare and . . . lead to substantial fraud." But supporters of the Hagel-Martinez version called it a carefully calibrated compromise that can attract a filibuster-proof majority.

Senators also rejected an amendment, by Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), that would have toughened penalties for labor-law violations involving immigrants, but they approved one by Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that would grant employers "an affirmative defense against criminal liability" if they follow certain protocols in hiring immigrants who prove to be illegal.

With Senate passage appearing likely, focus is shifting to negotiations with the House, expected to begin next month. The immigration issue fractures both parties, especially in the House, along unfamiliar lines, and it is far from clear whether House leaders can craft a compromise acceptable to majorities in both chambers.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters yesterday: "You all know how far apart these two bills are, and how far apart the American people's opinions are. So trying to find a pathway that is acceptable to the House and Senate is going to be very difficult."

Chief Deputy House Whip Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) said that if a compromise is to win House approval, "it needs to be about border security first." House members might accept some form of pathway to legality for illegal immigrants, he said, but only if it is preceded by clear evidence that tighter border restrictions are beginning to work.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who supports the Senate version, said finding a workable House-Senate accord will be a challenge. "Whether the speaker and majority leader can pull that rabbit out of the hat is the $64 billion question," he said. "I think if the president puts his full weight behind it, he can get it. But it's a big pull."

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a prominent House conservative, called for a bill largely similar to the House version, adding a guest-worker program. But Pence's plan would require all illegal immigrants in the United States to be deported, a move most senators reject.

The Senate debate has mobilized groups opposed to legalizing illegal immigrants. Black conservatives and activists formed an 11-member coalition yesterday called Choose Black America, saying competition for jobs and housing with immigrants have worsened living and working conditions for blacks.

"We formed to oppose the Senate bill," said Frank Morris, a former associate dean at the University of Maryland. "The most vulnerable constituents to immigration reform are African Americans, especially African Americans with less education and training."

The Choose Black America coalition, whose news conference was sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called on Congress to strengthen border security, boost enforcement and deport illegal immigrants.

Staff writer Krissah Williams contributed to this report.

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