Bush Seeks Unity On Immigration

Bush seeks unity on immigration
Reaches out to Democrats to craft new bill
By Rick Klein, Boston Globe Staff | November 27, 2006

WASHINGTON — The White House is reaching out to leading congressional Democrats on the issue of overhauling immigration, hoping to build a bipartisan coalition to support a “guest worker” program and provide a path to legalized status for many undocumented immigrants, lawmakers and administration officials said.

President Bush has expressed an eagerness to work with Democrats on the issue in private meetings with lawmakers and in public statements, as he seeks to strike a new tone with Democrats who will be in control of Congress for the final two years of his presidency.

The president's interest in the issue is getting a warm reception from members of both parties in Congress, particularly in the Senate, where a bill reflecting the president's priorities passed this year only to die in negotiations with the House.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who is set to take the chairmanship of the subcommittee that oversees immigration issues, has already met with leading Republicans — including Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican — to begin crafting a new bill early next year. “The dynamics are right,” said Kennedy, who worked closely with McCain and others on the immigration bill that passed the Senate earlier this year. “With a new Congress, we have an opportunity to pass our plan to secure our borders, uphold our laws, and strengthen our economy.”

Kennedy and the other lawmakers are planning a broader meeting this week of about 12 leading senators from both parties. They are hoping to have Congress vote on a final immigration bill by mid-2007, according to congressional aides.

Though no specific proposals have been floated, the bill passed this year by the Senate is a likely starting point, aides said.

Congress's failure to pass a comprehensive immigration bill this year was a bitter disappointment for Bush, who made the issue his top domestic priority for 2006. The president made it the subject of a nationally televised address in May, after huge immigrant-led rallies spoke to the growing influence of immigrants on national politics.

The Senate bill paired new border enforcement provisions with an expanded guest-worker program for temporary employment and a path to legalization that would allow about 80 percent of undocumented immigrants now in the country to eventually become citizens if they pay fines and back taxes, learn English, and maintain steady work histories.

House conservatives, however, balked at doing anything beyond sealing the border. Bush last month signed a measure that calls for the construction of 700 miles of fence along the Mexican border. The law is silent on the issue of the 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the United States.

But the newly elected Congress that will convene in January will be distinctly more friendly to the guest-worker plan. With Republicans losing control of the House and Senate, the strongest anti- immigration voices will be in the minority instead of the majority.

Several prominent advocates of an enforcement-only approach to immigration, including Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Representative J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, lost their reelection bids and will be replaced by lawmakers who are more open to a comprehensive measure.

In a signal of the Republican Party's shifting stance on the issue, the Republican National Committee will be now headed by Senator Mel Martinez of Florida — a Cuban immigrant who is a strong backer of the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate.

“Some of the big obstacles to reform this year are now out of the way,” said Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil-rights group. “We have a president that really wants this. We have a Senate that's already passed a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill. And we have new leadership in the House.”

The election results also assuaged fears among both Democrats and Republicans that voters would punish lawmakers who support a bill giving undocumented immigrants a way to achieve legalized status.

Exit polls indicated that the GOP appeared to pay a price in the elections for its emphasis on cracking down on illegal immigration. While Bush received 44 percent of the Latino vote two years ago, GOP congressional candidates won the support of only 29 percent of Latino voters this year.

Proponents of a comprehensive overhaul feel a sense of urgency after the elections. With the 2008 presidential race already fast approaching, Congress has a limited window to accomplish anything as politically volatile as immigration law, said Ali Noorani , executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “If this doesn't happen in the next six months or so, we're going to have to wait until January '09,” Noorani said.

For Bush, the issue of immigration offers an opportunity to accomplish a major legislative priority despite the fact that his party lost control of Congress. His stance on the issue has been closer to that of Democratic congressional leaders than of Republicans.

“There's an issue where I believe we can find some common ground with the Democrats,” Bush said at his first post election news conference earlier this month.

Scott Stanzel , a White House spokesman, said Bush is eager for Congress to write a comprehensive immigration bill that includes the guest-worker provision.

“We're anxious to see, in terms of the new leadership, what they come forward with,” Stanzel said.

But some leading Democrats are skeptical of Bush's commitment to working in a bipartisan fashion. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid noted that Bush had indicated that he would oppose a fence along the Mexican border unless it was part of a broader package of changes, yet wound up holding a ceremony at the White House in which he signed a bill authorizing a border fence.

“I have to be honest with you: I am waiting for some action from the president,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said last week at a breakfast meeting with reporters. “We need a bipartisan approach to a problem our country has.”

Pressures within the Democratic Party could also be difficult to sort out. Democrats won control of Congress with a crop of moderate-to-conservative challengers for whom easing the nation's immigration laws is not a top priority.

In addition, liberal Democrats attacked the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate as too draconian in its punishments for undocumented immigrants.

Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who leads a group of hard-liners on the immigration issue in the House, said he was dejected in the days after the election and was ready to concede that a comprehensive bill is all but unstoppable.

But watching early signs of disunity among Democrats, he said, gives him hope that conservatives can coalesce to defeat anything they view as “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, despite the formidable power of a White House working in concert with congressional leaders.

“Now we've got a fighting chance to stop this,” Tancredo said. ” They're going to have a tough time constructing a bill that will be able to hold whatever kind of coalition they can put together. You have these various forces pulling at it all ways.”