Bush, Business Target Republicans in Last-Ditch Immigration Try
By Catherine Dodge and Jay Newton-Small
April 16 (Bloomberg) — President George W. Bush, with the backing of more than 50 business groups, is mounting an all-out effort to win support among skeptical Republican lawmakers for an immigration overhaul that may be his last chance for a domestic achievement.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff are meeting lawmakers weekly to build support for a plan that would combine a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, which most House Republicans oppose, with stricter enforcement. With the same frequency, Gutierrez is sitting down to plot strategy with business groups, which are also lobbying lawmakers.
Winning Republican support is critical because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, told Bush earlier this year she won't bring the immigration legislation to a vote unless the president delivers a significant number of House Republicans to join with the Democrats to pass it.
With Bush politically weakened by the war in Iraq and his popularity near record lows, his effort is “much more about convincing and cajoling'' lawmakers than enforcing party discipline, says Representative Mark Kirk of Illinois, who leads the 40-member Tuesday Group of self-described moderate Republicans. “I don't think he can push them into much at this point.''
To the Rescue?
That's where the business groups come in. The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a Washington-based umbrella organization that includes more than 50 trade groups and companies, says it has sent representatives to discuss immigration with all 55 newly elected House members.
Laura Reiff, the co-chairwoman of EWIC, which includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Home Builders and the biggest U.S. hotel operator, Bethesda, Maryland-based Marriott International Inc., says members are regularly organizing “fly-ins'' by trade-group representatives to lobby lawmakers.
There is also “a new infusion'' of grass-roots involvement from small- and mid-sized businesses, says Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a Washington organization that favors free-market policies and backs immigration overhaul. State groups are contacting lawmakers when they return to their districts in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Colorado, she says.
One state group, the Texas Employers for Immigration Reform, this month began a state-wide television advertisement called “We All Need Workers'' that features local employers urging Congress to fix the immigration system.
A `Big Push'
Heath Weems, director of education and workforce policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group, says the administration and businesses are making a “big push'' on Capitol Hill because they know “the opportunity window will close by the end of the summer,'' when the politics of the 2008 election will make compromise even more difficult.
For the business groups, it's a matter of economics — particularly the demographic pressures that will limit the supply of labor in future years. Businesses are “coming out and saying, `You are forcing me to either hire someone illegally or to shut down,''' Gutierrez says.
The restaurant industry, for example, currently employs about 12.8 million people and needs to add 15 percent more jobs in the next decade, according to the Washington-based National Restaurant Association. But the number of workers will only grow 10 percent and the number of those aged 16 to 24, about half of the industry's workforce, will be stagnant, the association says.
Just how many Republicans Bush and business need to deliver isn't completely clear. A Democratic congressional aide says Pelosi told the president she wants at least 70 Republicans to sign on to his plan, which most Democrats support, before she'll bring it to a vote. The aide says the number isn't written in stone, but will have to be substantial.
However many it will take, there's broad agreement the president isn't close to it yet. House Republicans particularly balk at Bush's continued insistence on a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and a guest-worker program — a course they rejected last year, when they still controlled Congress.
“There is a better environment this year'' in the House, Gutierrez said in an interview. “People know that the president is committed to finding a middle-ground solution that isn't amnesty and isn't mass deportation.''
While White House spokesman Scott Stanzel says the administration is “heartened by the conversations'' between Chertoff, Gutierrez and lawmakers, Representative Steve King of Iowa, who opposes any plan that would give “amnesty'' to undocumented workers, says he wasn't swayed during an hour-long meeting with Chertoff several weeks ago.
“It was clear we don't see eye-to-eye,'' King says. Bush's proposal would “destroy the rule of law and the middle class,'' and he vows to fight the administration's effort with “everything that I have.''
Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is running for president on a tough-on-immigration platform, says lawmakers seeking re-election next year are going to be wary of any proposal that makes them appear soft on the issue.
“There's no incentive to support the president on a controversial issue like this,'' he says. “It doesn't play that well in their districts, and it's big.''
Focusing on the Senate
While Bush and his allies scour the landscape for the needed House votes, much of the focus for the next two months will be on the Senate, which in the past has been friendlier to Bush's approach. Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has set aside the final two weeks of May for floor debate.
Business coalitions are working on legislation with a bipartisan group of senators, including Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona, says John Gay, vice president of government affairs at the National Restaurant Association.
Representatives of the Washington-based Chamber of Commerce, the largest U.S. business lobby, are meeting with Kennedy and McCain, who both back proposals similar to Bush's, says Bruce Josten, the group's chief lobbyist.
“What everyone is trying to do is find the sweet spot'' where most of the senators and the business groups can agree, Josten says. The Chamber has dispatched three lobbyists to Capitol Hill to work full-time on immigration, he says.
Gay of the restaurant association — whose group represents companies such as McDonald's Corp. and Darden Restaurants Inc., owner of the Olive Garden chain — says he's optimistic about getting a deal. “We're the closest we've been in the seven-plus years that I've been working on this issue,'' he says.
But while an agreement in the Senate would give an immigration proposal momentum in the House, there's no guarantee that it would shake loose the votes Bush needs, says Kirk. Most Republicans “are keeping their powder dry,'' he says.
To contact the reporters on this story: Catherine Dodge in Washington, at Cdodge3@bloomberg.net ; Jay Newton-Small in Washington at email@example.com
Last Updated: April 15, 2007 19:05 EDT