Immigration Deal at Risk as House GOP Looks to Voters

By Jim VandeHei and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Republican House members facing the toughest races this fall are overwhelmingly opposed to any deal that provides illegal immigrants a path to citizenship -- an election-year dynamic that significantly dims the prospects that President Bush will win the immigration compromise he is seeking, according to Republican lawmakers and leadership aides.

The opposition spreads across the geographical and ideological boundaries that often divide House Republicans, according to interviews with about half of the 40 or so lawmakers whom political handicappers consider most vulnerable to defeat this November. At-risk Republicans -- from moderates such as Christopher Shays in suburban Connecticut and Steve Chabot in Cincinnati to conservative J.D. Hayworth in Arizona -- said they are adamant that Congress not take any action that might be perceived as rewarding illegal behavior.

Shays, one of the few vulnerable House Republicans open to a broad compromise with the Senate, said strong protests from his constituents this month prompted him to speak out for the first time against citizenship for undocumented workers. "It would be a huge mistake to give people a path to citizenship that came here illegally," he said.

The nearly united front of Republicans from the most competitive districts against Bush's approach to immigration underscores the difficulties the president is facing as he tries to coax his partisans in the House to embrace what he calls a "rational middle ground," along the lines of a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate by 62 to 36 Thursday. GOP leaders in the House are basing their legislative strategy in large part on how it will affect members in the most jeopardy this fall.

Several Republicans said they are getting more bricks in the mail -- as part of a new grass-roots campaign promoting a fence between the United States and Mexico -- than letters or calls supporting Bush and the Senate bill. Most said 80 to 90 percent of feedback coming from constituents last week was in opposition to Bush and the Senate on the citizenship question.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will not allow a vote on a House-Senate compromise that does not have the support of most GOP lawmakers or one that would undermine the reelection chances of his at-risk members, aides said. According to GOP lawmakers and strategists, about 75 percent of the 231 House Republicans are steadfastly opposed to the Senate bill or even a watered-down version of it.

Despite some national polls showing strong support for a comprehensive solution of the sort favored by Bush, nearly every GOP lawmaker interviewed for this article said the House plan to secure the borders and enforce existing immigration laws is unquestionably the safer political stand in his or her district. Many Democrats from vulnerable districts say the same thing, although the Democratic Caucus as a whole is more sympathetic to a Senate-style compromise.

Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) said he told White House officials, who keep citing polls showing wide support for the Bush approach, that "they must not be polling anyone in the 2nd District."

The House GOP lawmakers reject the argument made by the White House and Senate Republicans such as John McCain (Ariz.) that the best long-term political strategy is to craft a compromise that is appealing to many Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group in America. McCain, in an interview, cautioned his House colleagues to more closely examine "voting patterns" and understand the "detrimental" consequences of alienating Hispanics, who make up about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population.

Rep. Ric Keller, who analysts said could lose his Orlando district if there is a powerful anti-Republican wave in November, said that "there has never been more intensity on any issue in the last six years than illegal immigration." In town hall meetings, he said, about 90 percent of voters are opposed to a guest-worker program and in favor of the House approach. The House bill focuses solely on border security and law enforcement -- and makes it a felony for people to assist illegal immigrants.

Keller said Bush's proposal to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border did little to quiet criticism that the White House has failed to sufficiently crack down on illegal immigration. "There is not a lot of credibility right now with the administration on securing the border and enforcing the law," he said.

Keller, like most House Republicans in tough races this year, has a small percentage of Hispanics living in his district, which strategists said makes it easier to reject a broad compromise. Many senators, by contrast, represent more diverse populations and are therefore more sensitive to the concerns of Hispanics. Moreover, only one-third of senators face reelection this fall, so it is easier for them to ignore the short-term Republican politics, which are dominated by concerns about any program that resembles amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"House members' elections are not periods with us, they're just commas," said Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.). "We keep our finger on the public pulse all the time, not just every six years."

Gutknecht, who represents a southern Minnesota district that is 93 percent white, rejected claims by McCain and others that it would be disastrous if Republicans, who control the White House and Congress, failed to strike a compromise this year. "It would give the administration time to demonstrate they are serious that they can defend the law," he said.

Rep. Heather A. Wilson, who represents a majority-minority district in New Mexico, is an exception among House Republicans. She voted against an earlier House GOP bill that made illegal immigration a felony and cracked down on illegal border crossings. Wilson, one of the top Democratic targets this fall, said she is torn over how to handle the illegal immigrants living here. She said she is open to a compromise that treats families with children born in the United States differently. These children, who are citizens, she said, "should not be held accountable for bad decisions their parents made." Her district is more than 40 percent Hispanic.

Shays, who represents an upscale, largely white swing district in Connecticut, said he informed GOP leaders of his opposition to Bush's path to citizenship after talking to local voters in a recent 18-stop tour. If anything, voters are growing more "adamant" in their opposition, he said. In an interview, he proposed allowing illegal immigrants a chance to stay and work but not become citizens, which many senators said would be a deal-killer.

This highlights the hurdles to a compromise. House Republicans appear inalterably opposed to any bill that paves the way for citizenship. They plan to name representatives to the House-Senate conference committee who share this view. They will fight for the security-only approach and are prepared to walk away from the conference if they don't get their way, according to GOP leadership aides.

On the other side, the fragile Senate coalition that passed a more comprehensive bill is held together by a common belief that it would be unwise and unworkable to deal with the borders only and not solve the problem of what to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants living here today. The coalition will crumble if the House Republicans prevail, according to senators and aides.

The White House, led by Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, has been lobbying House members to soften their position and expects that more moderate lawmakers would eventually side with Bush.

Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (Fla.), who is not known as an immigration hard-liner but is one of the party's most vulnerable incumbents, said there is virtually no chance of a compromise this year that includes a guest-worker program or a pathway to citizenship. Shaw said the politics of the issue are more mixed in his Fort Lauderdale district, which includes a large number of hospitality firms and other companies that rely on low-cost labor from illegal immigrants.

But he emphasized that Congress needs months, and perhaps years, of public hearings to determine the economic effects of legalizing millions of immigrants.

Another moderate, Chabot, said immigration was the only issue that came up during a tour of church festivals in his Cincinnati district a week ago, deepening his opposition to the Bush approach. "If you allow the folks here to stay, you're just encouraging more to come," Chabot said.

Some Democrats are feeling similar pressure. When the House voted on its get-tough bill that also made illegal immigration a felony, 13 of the 17 Democratic incumbents who face tough races sided with Republicans. "The folks I represent in Georgia are sick and tired of the fact that nothing's been done to stem the tide of illegal immigration," said Rep. John Barrow, who dismissed the Senate bill as "amnesty-light -- no matter what they try to call it." Still, many House Democrats are open to a Senate-style settlement.

Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), a top Democratic target who represents a district so competitive it is known as the "bloody 8th," warned that if House Republicans do not oppose guest workers, temporary workers and anything "that looks like amnesty," they could very well lose the House.

"There are lot of people on Capitol Hill that have no clue what November is going to bring them on immigration," he said. "It could be something like a tidal wave that could benefit the Democrats simply because Republicans don't do the right thing. To survive through November, the folks up here [on Capitol Hill] are really going to have to understand the passion behind this."

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