Congress gets an earful on immigration

As the House and Senate struggle to reconcile two reform bills, constituents express frustration.

It's wedge week in the US Senate, as Republican leaders force largely symbolic votes on issues that sparked the GOP base in past elections, such as a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and permanent repeal of the estate tax.

But this election cycle, it appears that voters are fixed on bigger-ticket concerns - and they want results.

Back from a week in their home districts, members on both sides of the aisle report a growing disconnect between Congress and constituents on issues ranging from war to fuel prices. But voters seem to be reserving their greatest frustration for immigration.

Just count the bricks. Last Friday, the Architect of the Capitol's office hauled off some 2,100 bricks, sent to Senate offices by people who are angry that Congress hasn't done enough to build a "wall" at the borders. The Senate version of immigration reform, which passed on May 25, offers a path to citizenship for millions of people now in the country illegally. The House version of the bill focuses on border security. The two versions now must be reconciled.

A recent poll by the Republican National Committee signals there may be room for compromise. The RNC poll tested a number of messages on immigration and found that the candidate who focuses only on border security loses to the candidate who talks about comprehensive reform, 25 percent to 71 percent. Seventy percent of voters - and 64 percent of Republicans - say illegal immigrants who have put down roots in the US should be granted legal status if they "go to the back of the line, pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English, and have a clean criminal record," according to this poll. Only 25 percent say that would be amnesty.

"Americans believe illegal immigration is a serious problem that the government has failed to address in the past. Doing nothing on this issue is not a solution, as Americans want it fixed today," wrote RNC senior adviser Matthew Dowd in a May 26 memorandum.

For Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, it's meant facing angry constituents at district meetings and late nights personally answering e-mails from voters dismayed over his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. "If you can get more than 30 seconds to talk about the issue, you can win some people over," he says.

"If we just put our resources on the border, what do you do with the fact that half of those in the country illegally didn't sneak across the border? Do you think we can deport the equivalent of the state of Ohio across the border?" he says, in response to critics.

But freshman Rep. Patrick McHenry (R) of North Carolina, who has two bricks displayed on his desk, says his constituents are opposed to any form of amnesty for illegals. "My constituents are outraged by the Senate's actions," he says. "I hear about it when I'm at the supermarket, when I am getting gas, when I'm doing constituent meetings. To a person, they mention immigration as a top-tier issue. And I've yet to hear one constituent say anything positive about the Senate bill."

Recent polls put Congress at near-historic lows in public approval ratings, in the 20s. It's also playing out at the ballot box.

This week, Republicans won what had been a safe GOP seat in a special election to replace Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California, who stepped down after pleading guilty to corruption charges. But they did so only after pouring $5 million into the race, and after Francine Busby, the Democratic contender, committed an 11th-hour gaffe on immigration that damaged her prospects. Last Thursday, she made a comment that critics said encouraged illegal immigrants to help her campaign.

"That remark pulled a whole bunch of Republican voters who weren't enthused about [former Rep. Brian] Bilbray into the race. It made a big difference," says Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report.

"Iraq is the driving reason why people think the direction of the country is so bad, but immigration feeds the sense that it's time for a change. It makes an already strong mood even stronger," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report.

However, incumbents also face scrutiny from voters over runaway spending and soaring fuel costs. The rising cost of commuting is especially likely to figure in suburbs and rural areas, where Republicans have typically won elections.

"If you read the polls, the top issues now are Iraq, immigration, and fuel prices. They're the hot-button issues people want something done on by Congress and the president," says Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst.

Pennsylvania voters ousted 17 incumbent state legislators last month; 14 were Republicans. "I hope Republicans get the message that the base is very, very angry," says Pat Toomey, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth.

That's why Republicans on Capitol Hill are eager to find other reasons to mobilize their base for fall elections. But the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage fell short this week, as did the vote to end the estate tax.

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