GOP Weighs Balance on Immigration

The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 5:17 AM

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Mel Martinez, tapped as party chairman to help expand the GOP's appeal to Latino voters, is struggling to bridge seemingly intractable divides among Republicans over immigration.

In months of intense closed-door talks among White House officials and key Republicans and Democrats, the Florida senator's main task has been to referee between warring GOP factions.

He has prodded business-minded moderates like himself who are eager for a politically palatable compromise to partner with hardline conservatives who are wary of one.

His bottom line: that immigration laws need to be fixed and Republicans politically can't afford to be seen as the party standing in the way of such changes.

Senators were racing to get an immigration agreement by Wednesday, when Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., otherwise will bring up a measure passed last year with strong Democratic support _ but one opposed by most Republicans.

Negotiators were close to a deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday, said officials of both parties, speaking not for attribution because the talks were ongoing.

Squeezed by both sides, Martinez' precarious spot in the immigration debate reflects his party's dilemma on the divisive issue.

Strategists are eager to grab hold of the fast-growing Latino segment of the electorate and stay in good graces with powerful business groups that depend on a steady flow of immigrant labor. But then they risk alienating conservatives with an overly permissive immigration policy.

A perception in the 2006 election that the GOP was blocking a compromise on immigration "was very hurtful in many places, and it showed itself in the outcome," said the Cuban-born Martinez.

"People who had a harsh view of this lost," he said.

His job as GOP party chairman has required some difficult political acrobatics for Martinez, 60, whose own experiences have shaped his views on immigration. He left Cuba as a teenager as part of Operation Pedro Pan, a Catholic Charities-organized effort that helped 14,000 unaccompanied minors escape to the United States in the early 1960s.

Last year, Martinez broke with his party and joined Democrats to help write and pass a measure that would have given many of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Associated Press