Immigrant Legislation Splits GOP

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007

President Bush's embrace of compromise immigration legislation has split the Republican Party, as several GOP presidential candidates quickly came out against the deal and the conservative base reacted with fury.

Key figures on the right, including conservative talk radio hosts, analysts at the Heritage Foundation and National Review columnists, derided the agreement as a sellout of conservative principles, while GOP presidential candidates criticized the plan as a form of amnesty -- a characterization rejected by the White House.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who last year said similar efforts for a comprehensive immigration bill were "reasonable," called the deal reached this week the "wrong approach" to the problem. "Any legislation that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely, as the new Z Visa does, is a form of amnesty," he said.

Although the White House is also facing an uproar on the left, the conservative reaction underscores both the volatile role immigration continues to play in GOP politics and Bush's only mixed success in moving his party toward a vision of an open, immigrant-friendly society, which he has promoted since he was governor of Texas. Bush once hoped the vision might help realign American politics by bringing Hispanics into the GOP tent, but as it is, GOP opposition is a key impediment to his realizing a final big domestic victory before the end of his presidency.

White House officials said they fully anticipated the conservative reaction and acknowledge they face a big challenge in educating even their strongest supporters about a bill that would provide increased border security, create a temporary-worker program and allow many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States a chance to earn a green card if they pay fines and return first to their country of origin. The Senate will debate the measure next week, and the House is expected to take up the issue sometime this summer.

Tensions have already run high among Senate Republicans who have been immersed in negotiations over the bill. Presidential aspirant John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the Senate's strongest champions for the immigration bill, has been pilloried by his rivals for pushing a comprehensive approach to the issue. In a bipartisan meeting on the bill Thursday morning, the tensions apparently boiled over.

According to several sources, McCain and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) got into a shouting match when Cornyn began voicing concerns about the number of judicial appeals illegal immigrants could make. After McCain swore at Cornyn and accused him of trying to blow up the pact, Cornyn accused the presidential candidate of "parachuting" into the negotiations at the last minute. McCain, who helped craft an immigration deal last year in the Senate but has been represented by staffers in most meetings this year, blew up at Cornyn, saying, "I know more about this than anyone else in the room."

McCain's camp denied that he claimed superior knowledge of the bill but acknowledged that the two Republicans went at it. "These negotiations can be very tense, and there was a spirited exchange. That's it," said Brian Jones, McCain's presidential campaign spokesman.

Administration officials said they have addressed many of the concerns conservatives had with previous immigration legislation: Under the proposal, for instance, provisions making it possible for illegal immigrants to stay in the United States would go into effect only after stringent new border-control measures are in place. Such "triggers" won the support of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who opposed last year's Senate immigration bill, which never came up for a vote in the House.

Another change from last year's bill would require immigrants participating in a new guest-worker program to leave the country after their short-term work visas expire, with no way to petition for permanent residence. That helped win over Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), another past critic of immigration legislation.

"They're the things in this bill that Republicans and conservatives have wanted for a long time," said Joel D. Kaplan, the deputy White House chief of staff, who was a key negotiator on the bill. "The Republicans who know the most about what the bill does are those who have been involved day in and day out in the discussions of the drafting of the agreement, and we have seen encouraging support among that group."

Another senior White House official said objections raised by Democratic leaders pose as much danger to the legislation as the conservatives' concerns do. He said he remains uncertain whether Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are willing to allow Bush a Rose Garden signing ceremony on such a major issue.

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