Congress may yet move on immigration

Some experts see room for compromise, and delays could cost votes.

Is immigration reform defunct for the 109th Congress? It's looking that way, but there are also new pressures for compromise, especially when lawmakers factor in the cost of doing nothing.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert's call last week for new "field hearings" on the Senate bill puts off serious negotiation over competing bills until just before midterm elections, if ever. It's also a slap at President Bush, who backs the Senate's comprehensive approach to immigration reform and has been meeting privately with groups of lawmakers on the issue two or three times a week.

With immigration, Republicans have hit on an issue that rouses many of their voters, disappointed over their party's handling of war, deficits, and spending. Mail in many congressional offices is running 400 to 1 against the Senate's comprehensive approach to immigration, including a path to citizenship for millions in the US illegally.

Then there's the name that many House Republicans use to refer to the Senate bill: the Kennedy Democrat bill – despite the fact that 23 Senate Republicans backed it. It's meant as a red flag to the GOP base, and a signal that the issue is anchored deep in electoral politics.

Immigration emerged as a deciding factor in the June 6 special election to replace convicted former GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in California's 50th district. The importance of the issue to voters in this staunchly Republican district stunned many House Republicans.

In addition, on Tuesday, Rep. Chris Cannon (R) of Utah faces an unexpectedly tough primary from a challenger attacking his support of Mr. Bush's approach to immigration.

"[California 50] was a watershed that sent a loud message that people want border security," says Rep. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois, who favors the Senate's approach. He describes GOP House leaders' plans for field hearings as "a way to kill comprehensive immigration reform for this year."

Still, it's possible that support could build for action this fall. Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and backs the Senate bill, is opening his own field hearings in Philadelphia on July 5 on guest workers and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

Some recent polls signal that those who are registered Republicans and likely to vote are open to plans that require undocumented workers to leave long enough to legalize their status.

"There is still the possibility of finding common ground," says Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank. Last week, the MI released a poll showing that 72 percent of likely Republican voters want Congress to solve the problem of illegal immigration this year. Eighty-five percent say it is not realistic to deport 12 million illegal immigrants, and 1 in 2 opposes a proposal to deal with those here illegally through a policy of attrition.

"Everyone agrees we need better enforcement both on the border and in the workplace. And there's increasing agreement that we need more visas for foreign workers. I believe that airing the issues for a few months will increase the appetite for a solution," she adds.

Meanwhile, a proposal by Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana adopts border- security measures in the House bill. Instead of the path to citizenship provided in the Senate bill, the Pence plan requires those in the country illegally to apply for a work visa outside the United States. Private companies would issue work visas and conduct background checks of workers, as well as providing biometric identifiers for guest workers.

Once the new program is in place, there would be tough sanctions against employers who violated it.

"Very clearly, neither [the Senate nor the House] side is going to win clearly and completely," says Helen Krieble of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation, which is pushing its own guest-worker plan. Border security plus a guest-worker plan "is the only middle ground there is," she adds, citing a private poll showing that 3 in 4 likely Republican voters back such a plan.

Others aren't so enthusiastic. "You cannot build a government program on a foundation of a promise of enforcement, and there's no way to earn credibility between now and the end of the 109th Congress," says Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, commenting on the Pence plan.

Many of the business groups that have also been part of the GOP base in elections are urging Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform.

"While I have personal doubts that anything gets done this year, there is ample room for a compromise to move forward," says Bruce Josten, a lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce. He cites broad agreement on the need to control the borders, interior enforcement, employer sanctions, and cracking down on the "egregious business operators who are gaming the system."

The challenge for business groups could be to match the intensity that opponents of immigration reform are likely to show at field hearings over the summer.

"The passion on the other side far exceeds anything you'll see from the business community," says Mr. Josten. "It will be tough to at least have some 50-50 dialogue at these events and at least propel something more comprehensive."

Topics for the field hearings include whether undocumented immigrants should collect Social Security benefits, pay less than the full amount of back taxes owed, or have a right to in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. English as the nation's official language is also to be discussed.

In addition to a Senate hearing on guest workers, House Republicans will hold hearings next week in San Diego and Laredo, Texas, on border security.

"We are waiting to get feedback from the chairmen [who will be conducting the hearings], and will look at appointing conferees in September" to resolve differences with the Senate bill, says Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Speaker Hastert.

At the same time, Democrats say that delay is another sign of a "do nothing" GOP Congress.

"Republicans are running a single-issue campaign on an issue that they don't have a single accomplishment on," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a statement last week.

"From border security to enforcing immigration employment laws, this Congress touts its lack of accomplishment as a campaign strategy. Americans are looking for tough laws and a Congress with the will to enforce them," he added, noting that under the Bush administration in 2003, only four employers were prosecuted for employing illegal immigrants – down from 182 in 1999, when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

"It's clearly a pause," says Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, who chairs the House Rules Committee. "But [immigration reform] is not dead, because a number of us still want to get a solution."

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