Immigration Issue Splits the GOP
Key House Member Calls Senate Bill a 'Non-Starter'
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 27, 2006; A05
The immigration issue threatened to cleave the Republican Party yesterday, as a key GOP House member chided President Bush's top political adviser and labeled a central element of the Senate's hard-fought immigration bill a "non-starter."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a prominent player in the approaching House-Senate negotiations over immigration legislation, told reporters that the two chambers are "180 degrees apart" and that compromise is possible only if the Senate jettisons some of its bill's most prized provisions. The Senate proposal to allow millions of illegal immigrants to pursue citizenship, he said, amounts to amnesty, and "amnesty is wrong, because amnesty rewards someone for illegal behavior."
Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is known as an especially cantankerous conservative, and some degree of posturing and bluffing is typical in both houses before their members launch negotiations over contentious matters. But the House's top GOP leaders made no effort to dilute Sensenbrenner's pointed comments, even those that bordered on ridiculing the White House.
Asked at a morning news conference about the faith that some Republicans place in Bush -- who generally backs the Senate version -- to move the House from its hard-line position, Sensenbrenner replied: "The president dispatched Karl Rove, guru in chief up there, to the Republican conference, both this week and last week. . . . And they [House Republicans] jumped all over Rove. And they said the president is not where the American people are at. The Senate is also not where the American people are at."
Sensenbrenner's remarks suggest that GOP leaders face a formidable task in bridging the party's divide on an emotional issue five months before the midterm elections. The Senate's 55-member Republican caucus fractured over the immigration bill that passed Thursday, with 23 voting for it and 32 voting against it. By contrast, Democrats were nearly unified, backing the measure 38 to 4.
The GOP divisions underscored the issue's complexity and its resistance to easy analysis. Among Arizona's Republicans, Sen. John McCain led the fight for the bill, while Sen. Jon Kyl was a key critic. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) championed the bill, while his state's other GOP senator, Jim DeMint, derided it.
Of the five Republican senators weighing presidential bids in 2008, only one -- George Allen (Va.) -- voted against the bill. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), also an opponent of the bill, said yesterday, "I think Allen comes out closer to where Republican primary voters are."
Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker said the immigration issue poses a serious threat to the party. Since the Reagan administration, he said, "it's been a stable coalition between the party's business and chamber-of-commerce wing and its social conservatives." Now, Baker said, the first group cherishes the cheap labor that illegal immigrants provide, "while many Republicans, especially in the Sunbelt, really feel the country is being overwhelmed by the alien tide."
The House in December passed an immigration bill dealing only with tougher border and workplace enforcement. It would make felons of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. A key element of the Senate bill would allow most of those immigrants to remain in the country and possibly become citizens.
Sensenbrenner said he will oppose the Senate provision, even if it were allowed to take effect only after there is proof of dramatically fewer illegal crossings from Mexico, thanks to tougher border enforcement efforts.
"A pathway to citizenship, also known as amnesty . . . is a non-starter," he said. A guest-worker program "can be on the table if it does not contain an amnesty," he said, "but only if the employer sanctions and the increased border patrols are effective."
Sensenbrenner said many of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants will leave voluntarily if the government enforces the House's proposed sharp sanctions against employers who hire them. "With the border controls and the enforcement of employer sanctions, the jobs for illegal immigrants will dry up," he said. "And if you can't get a job because employer sanctions are enforced, my belief is that a lot of the illegal immigrants will simply go back home."
Sensenbrenner disputed the argument that illegal immigrants are essential in handling "certain jobs that Americans will not do." He said: "Americans will do and have done any job as long as they're paid enough money."
Americans "are willing to spend whatever it takes to secure the border," he added. As for his reputation as a tough negotiator against senators, Sensenbrenner proudly cited an article that said "I've been known to eat them for breakfast and to pick my teeth with their bones."
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), the chamber's third-ranking Republican leader, "shares the concerns about the Senate approach raised by Chairman Sensenbrenner," his office said yesterday. Blunt opposes "any plan that creates a path to citizenship for those who are in the country illegally," the statement said, and he "remains focused on a border security-first approach."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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