By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007
With bipartisan talks on immigration near a standstill, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) moved yesterday to bring last year's broad overhaul of immigration laws back to the floor of the Senate next week, appealing to President Bush to save what could be his last hope for a major second-term domestic achievement.
The legislation -- which couples a border security crackdown with a guest-worker program and new avenues for undocumented immigrants to work legally in the country -- passed the Senate a year ago this month with the support of 62 members, 23 of them Republican, only to die in the House. With Democrats now in control of Congress and with the president eager for an accomplishment, immigrant rights groups believe the prospects for a final deal are far better this year.
But Senate Republicans, even those who helped craft last year's bill, say the political environment has shifted decisively against that measure and toward a tougher approach. Four Republican architects of the 2006 bill released a letter yesterday, pleading with Reid to hold off on the debate while bipartisan talks continue on new legislation.
"Last year's bill is not the solution for this year," said Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.), one of those architects who is now general chairman of the Republican Party.
But Reid decided to force the issue, devoting the Senate's next two weeks to hammering out a comprehensive bill. If negotiators reach a deal on a new proposal in the coming days, he promised to bring it to a vote. "There are all kinds of excuses people could offer," Reid said. "But how can we have anything that's more fair than taking a bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis, and using that as the instrument" to build a new version?
Immigration poses political peril for both parties. It has badly split GOP-leaning business groups eager for immigrant labor from party-base conservatives furious at what they see as an invasion of illegal immigrants. Democrats must bridge a chasm between old-line labor groups that fear that immigrant workers are driving down wages and burgeoning service-worker unions that see low-wage workers as the backbone of a new labor movement.
Both parties are battling for the allegiance of Latino voters. Indeed, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) offered immigrant groups virtual veto power over this year's bill.
"Unless the stakeholders are going to believe that it's worthy of their support, no matter what we do here in the United States Senate, it isn't going to work," he said.
And, this year, the issue is tangled in presidential politics. One White House hopeful, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), has all but renounced a career-long stance favorable to immigrant rights. And the co-author of last year's bill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has been largely absent from this year's negotiations, as he soft-pedals his pro-immigration stance.
McCain spokeswoman Eileen McMenamin said yesterday that the senator remains committed to a bill that would strengthen border controls, back guest workers and offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said McCain's absence from the negotiations has been "a big factor" in the rising tide of Republican opposition. Another factor is a president whose authority on Capitol Hill is in steep decline. "The president's approval ratings do not exactly create a dynamic political force," Durbin said.
In that vacuum, Republican senators who opposed last year's bill have emerged as key players in this year's battle, and they have already succeeded in raising issues that were barely discussed in 2006. Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), an ardent opponent of last year's bill, said the measure got only so many GOP votes because Republican senators expected the final bill to be far tougher after emerging from negotiations with House GOP hard-liners. With Democrats now in charge of the House, Senate Republicans are taking a tougher stand, he said.
Senators are nearing agreement on some of the most contentious issues. Once again, an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants would probably get new avenues to find legal work and earn citizenship once they have established a strong work record, cleared a criminal-background check, and paid penalties and back taxes. Beefed-up border security would be linked to tougher penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants and to new tools for businesses to screen job applicants.
But Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided over the flow of new immigrants. Republicans, with the White House's backing, are proposing a three-year temporary-worker program that would allow 400,000 new workers to enter the country each year, provided they return to their home countries once their visas expire. A much smaller number, perhaps 20,000, would be able to apply for a work visa that could lead to legal permanent residency.
Even more controversial is a GOP effort to change current laws that allow legal U.S. residents to bring relatives into the country. Republicans want to drop large categories from that family immigration system, blocking the inflow of adult children and siblings of U.S. residents and capping the number of parents allowed to migrate. That move would make room for more skilled workers and educated professionals.
Last year's bill would have allowed guest workers to remain in the country indefinitely and work toward citizenship.
With the divisions so deep, Republican Senate leadership aides privately said that the bill is "on life support." Democrats were no more optimistic. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the fate of comprehensive immigration legislation rests with Bush.
"The president has got to be personally involved," Leahy said. "He cannot just send up Cabinet members and ask them to speak with a few members of the president's party and think that that's going to get you through."