Washington — In a highly charged election year, with Republicans and Democrats searching for new ammunition with which to assault each other, a limited cease-fire has silenced the partisan guns on Capitol Hill.
Immigration reform has heated tempers. Opponents used almost every parliamentary maneuver in the book to keep it from coming to the House floor and then darkly warned that those who favored it might be hurt among voters.
But as the House ended a week and a half of debate on an immigration bill that has been seven years in the making, the two parties have kept nearly all partisan politics out. ''I haven't made it an issue for my party,'' said Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, the House's normally partisan Speaker.
On the House floor, cosponsor Romano L. Mazzoli of Kentucky, a Democrat, leaned heavily on help from the Republican side of the aisle. At one point during a break from floor action, he expressed concern that in the heat of debate some Democrats might have insulted Republicans and lost votes.
As of this writing, Representative Mazzoli had successfully warded off crippling amendments, including one to eliminate all amnesty for aliens (by a vote of 233 to 195), and appeared headed for winning passage for the bill.
Meanwhile, closeted in an office on the other end of Capitol Hill, Mazzoli's chief ally and co-author, Sen. Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, watched the debate on a small television and cheered from a distance. He had already steered the bill through the Senate twice, and he proclaimed to be satisfied simply by the fact that both houses have now openly debated immigration reform.
''It shows me the system can work,'' said Senator Simpson. Whether the bill finally becomes law or not, he said, the issue got a full airing.
''At least the American people know more about immigration than they did 10 days ago,'' said the Wyoming senator.
The Simpson-Mazzoli bill has made plenty of enemies, especially for its two key provisions: penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens and legalization for millions of aliens already living here. By the end of the House debate it had added to its foes not only Hispanics, who fear the bill will engender discrimination against them, but also of the US Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the red tape created by employer sanctions.
Conservative lawmakers attacked the amnesty provisions. ''It's a jobs issue, '' Rep. Kent Hance (D) of Texas repeatedly admonished his colleagues. ''There is going to be some displacement of American jobs,'' if illegal residents get amnesty.
Organized labor, which had supported immigration reform, turned around in mid-debate after the House added a provision sponsored by Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California to permit farmers to import unlimited numbers of temporary guest workers.
''The final straw was when the agriculture industry managed to get themselves a program of somewhat unknown parameters,'' says AFL-CIO lobbyist Jane O'Grady, who warned that the United States would be returning to the controversial ''bracero'' guest-worker program that ended in scandal and controversy in the 1960s. She also charges that the bill has no real ''teeth'' to enforce sanctions against employers who hire illegals.
But supporters have long maintained that while Simpson-Mazzoli is not loved by many, it is the best possible solution to a difficult problem. ''The guys who really know this issue know . . . that this is the best package there is,'' says Simpson, although he staunchly opposes the Panetta amendment and hopes to find a compromise way to provide farm workers.
Passing the immigration reform legislation is one guarantee against future ''ugliness'' in the US, Simpson says. ''There will be a much greater backlash if we continue to just do nothing,'' he says. ''It'll take longer, but it will be more severe.''
The final details of the bill have to be worked out in a House-Senate conference. As well as the guest-worker provisions, the two bills also differ on amnesty: The Senate would grant legalization to aliens living in the US since 1980, and the House since 1982. The Senate bill makes hiring illegals a crime, while the House bill handles it as a civil matter.