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Forget Politics. This Battle Is Personal.

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Alabama's Jeff Sessions sure knows how to nurse a grudge. Talking about his family earlier this year, the Republican senator recalled that "Lincoln killed one of them at Antietam."

Now he is turning his prodigious anger on legislation the Senate is expected to approve on Thursday that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to become citizens. In the process, Sessions is taking on the White House, his leaders in the Senate, the Congressional Budget Office and business interests at home.

"This bill is one of the worst pieces of legislation to come before the Senate," he proclaimed at a news conference yesterday, his second on the topic in as many weeks. He paused, unsatisfied with that superlative. "It's the worst piece of legislation to come before the Senate since I've been here."

A stream of epithets about the legislation flowed from his mouth and those of the two conservative scholars he brought with him. "Colossal error . . . absolute scandal . . . budget buster . . . fiscal disaster . . . catastrophe."

Linda Scott of PBS's "NewsHour" pointed out that the Alabama Farmers Federation takes the opposite view.

The senator fired back: "They want cheap labor and they're not considering the interest of the United States of America."

With the exception of some small victories -- Sessions persuaded his colleagues last week to support 370 miles of fence along the Mexican border and 500 miles of vehicle barriers -- the man from Alabama knows he has lost the battle in the Senate.

"We're heading to passage," he conceded yesterday, even as he readied a last-minute parliamentary maneuver to derail the bill today. Ultimately, he's hoping House Republicans, who have passed an immigration crackdown without legalization, will prevail in negotiations with the Senate.

"It will have to be rewritten," Sessions predicted of the Senate measure. "The bill is not fixable."

A short, wiry man with protruding ears, Sessions has become the Lou Dobbs of the Senate. He argues his points not with the courtly Southern tones of the late senator Howell Heflin (D), his predecessor, but with the harsh twang of a country tough -- which, in a sense, he is.

Sessions was one of just nine senators to oppose a ban on torture. He has raised objections about renewing the Voting Rights Act. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, according to Time magazine, Sessions, pushing for repeal of the estate tax, called a former law professor to see if he knew of any business owner who died in the storm.

And if his current fight in the Senate appears unwinnable, Sessions also knows how to turn defeat into victory. He sits on the same Judiciary Committee that in 1986 rejected him for a federal judgeship; opponents at the time cited his labeling of groups such as the NAACP as "un-American" and his prosecution of civil rights activists for voting fraud.

Sessions has joined the immigration debate with typical ferocity, impugning the motives of those who disagree with him. "We have quite a number of members of the House and Senate and members in the media who are all in favor of reforms and improvements as long as they don't really work," he said last week of those who opposed the 370 miles of fencing. "But good fences make good neighbors. Fences don't make bad neighbors."

The senator evidently hadn't consulted the residents of Korea, Berlin or the West Bank.

On Monday, he was on the Senate floor again, accusing his opponents of dishonesty. "The legislation has been crafted in a way that hides and conceals, even misrepresents its real effects," he said. "We should be ashamed of ourselves."

The Bush White House worries that the words of Sessions and like-minded lawmakers in the House will alienate Hispanic voters from the GOP. And, indeed, the senator's words can sound a bit harsh, as he fights to limit legal immigration, cut off tax benefits for those earning legal status and limit legal immigrants' ability to bring over family members.

"It's painful to bring people who are unable to speak English or to effectively take advantage of the opportunities our country has," he told his colleagues this week. "They tend to pull themselves apart and continue to speak their own language, and they don't advance and assimilate."

Forecasting a mass immigration of 73 million to 92 million over the next 20 years, Sessions described the process in extraordinary detail: "The nuclear family that we bring in after five years, they become citizens, they bring in their parents. . . . The parents can bring in their parents if they're still alive. They really can. Maybe they're 90. They can bring in others -- their brothers and sisters. The uncles, all the uncles can come in with this through the parents here. And the wife can bring in brothers and sisters and then the wife brings in her brother, who brings in his wife and two children and she brings in her parents. And it just goes on."

This may not be the best way to broaden the Republican appeal, but that's not Sessions's worry. "I'm beyond politics," he said yesterday. His opponents would readily agree.

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