Few issues divide Republicans more deeply than immigration, and Congress's GOP leaders have decided to approach the matter one component at a time.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing today on "comprehensive immigration reform." But top House and Senate officials have said recently they want to address enforcement and border-control issues before tackling proposals that could help undocumented workers obtain legal status, such as guest-worker programs.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) believes that the entire package of immigration issues is too much to swallow at once, and that lawmakers should start with border security and law enforcement issues, spokesman Bob Stevenson said yesterday. That puts Frist in line with House GOP leaders. Republican lawmakers are sharply split between those who want to crack down on illegal immigrants and those who want to create ways for some of those immigrants to live legally in the United States, either temporarily or permanently.
"I was a little surprised" to hear Frist's comments, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters yesterday. "I wouldn't read too much into this enforcement-only approach."
Cornyn and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) are pushing a bill that would require illegal immigrants to return to their home countries, where they could apply for a new guest-worker program. It would grant them temporary work visas but send them back for at least one year once that visa expires.
The "report to deport" feature is a nod to lawmakers who insist that illegal immigrants pay some penalty for breaking the law to enter the United States.
A rival bill is authored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). It would allow illegal immigrants to apply for new work visas and possibly earn permanent legal status eventually, without necessarily being deported. Many businesses that rely on undocumented workers support the measure.
Testifying at today's hearing will be Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao. President Bush has proposed a guest-worker program but has offered few details or lobbying efforts. That's not likely to change soon, Cornyn said. "They may well see fit to let Congress work this out," he said.
Senate Pay Freeze Is on the Table
The Senate kicks off a month-long effort to cut spending by attempting to dock its own pay. As early as today, senators are expected to vote on a GOP-offered measure to freeze their 2006 cost-of-living adjustment. One prominent co-sponsor: Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who blames his poor poll numbers back home in Pennsylvania in part on public furor over a pay raise that state legislators granted themselves.
The House will focus this week on amending the fiscal 2006 budget to include more spending cuts, while the Senate tries to execute the $35 billion in cuts that were approved when the original 2006 budget was approved this spring. Eight Senate committees are expected this week to outline specific cuts, revenue increases or cost savings.
Possible targets include Medicaid, student loans, corporate pension plans, food stamps and agricultural programs. Congress may also seek $2.4 billion in new leasing revenues from opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Various user fees may also be increased, including for using the St. Lawrence Seaway and for visas sought by businesses for workers who are not U.S. citizens.
The House may seek to increase the $35 billion figure to $50 billion as early as Thursday, an effort that would delay the unveiling of specific cuts until the end of the month. One idea is to impose an across-the-board spending reduction, with exceptions for homeland security and defense spending. But some Republicans believe there's plenty of fat to cut in the Pentagon's budget as well, without compromising the Iraq war effort.
A House effort to dig deeper than $35 billion could cause problems for appropriators, assuming that the additional cuts would run into some resistance in the Senate, especially among Republican moderates. The Senate expects to complete 11 of its 12 spending bills by the end of this week.
Congress also is expected to consider a new round of relief and rebuilding aid for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. The White House could send up the request as early as this week -- but this time, House and Senate Republicans hope it's paired with its own offsetting spending cuts.