Frist Stresses GOP's Immigration Efforts
He Admits Legislation Is Dead for Now and Focuses on Successes in Funding

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

Congress will not address major immigration revisions before the Nov. 7 election, the Senate's top Republican said yesterday, but he and his allies hope to limit political damage to their party by telling voters they have poured millions of dollars into one component of the controversy: tightening the border with Mexico.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) acknowledged that a broad-based immigration bill, backed by President Bush and passed by the Senate, is dead for now. But Republican leaders have added money for border fences and patrol agents to recent spending measures dealing with the Pentagon and homeland security. Frist said he thinks that step may lessen public anger over the porous border and the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

"We need to message very well the fact that we have increased over the last two years . . . the level of funding for immigration and border control fourfold, the fact that by the time we finish here in four weeks we will have 375 miles of fence being built and being funded . . . and the fact that stopping people at the border coming across has increased . . . by 25 to 30 percent in the last eight months," Frist told reporters.

The effort omits many of the provisions that he and Bush backed in the Senate bill, Frist conceded, including pathways to legal status for many illegal immigrants. However, he said, most Americans "just want to see the fence going up."

The legislative standoff amounts, in part, to a back-door victory for House Republicans, who have insisted on tougher enforcement of immigration laws before tackling broader revisions. Several prominent GOP senators have criticized that approach, saying voters expect their party to address all major aspects of the immigration debate. They include a larger temporary-worker program, improved record-keeping and worker verification procedures, and strategies for dealing with illegal immigrants without trying to deport them all.

"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," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said earlier this year.

Frist, briefing a half-dozen reporters in his Capitol office yesterday, predicted that voters will give his party more time.

"We have to address the 12 million people, the temporary-worker program and work-site enforcement, as well as border security," said Frist, who is not seeking reelection but may run for president in 2008. "We're not going to be able to do that before the election." The delay will not hurt GOP incumbents this fall, he said, because "what Republicans expect us to do is be firm on the border, secure the border, and we intend to do that," primarily through military and homeland security appropriations bills "and other bills that may come forward."

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is poised to succeed Frist as the Republican leader next year, told the reporters that if he were a GOP senator asked about immigration in a debate, "whether I voted against that comprehensive Senate bill or voted for it, as [Frist] and I did, here would be my answer." He then read from a list compiled by the Senate Budget Committee of spending measures in the past two years: 3,736 new Border Patrol agents, 9,150 new detention beds for arrested illegal immigrants, 370 miles of fence along the Mexican border.

"I think that's the way our candidates are going to handle it this fall," McConnell said.

The Senate's immigration bill called for about 350 miles of new fencing along the 1,950-mile border with Mexico. The House bill called for 700 miles of fence. The two bills were never sent to a conference committee for reconciliation efforts.

Graham and other GOP supporters of multifaceted immigration legislation have opposed enforcement-only approaches. They feared they would lose leverage with House conservatives if enforcement measures were not linked to other goals such as possible citizenship for illegal immigrants with longtime employment and clean criminal records. However, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said this week that the recent spending measures do not amount to a de facto House victory because legislators realize they eventually must confront the broader aspects of the immigration problem.

Democratic strategists said Congress's failure to enact a major immigration bill this year is proof of the Republican Party's ineffectiveness.

"They don't have a single accomplishment, yet they have control of the government," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), leader of his party's drive to regain control of the House this fall. He cited government findings that between 1999 and 2003, work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, while the number of employers prosecuted for unlawfully hiring immigrants dropped from 182 in 1999 to four in 2003.

"I wish their actions were as tough as their rhetoric," Emanuel said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company