Battle looms on border policies

GOP conservatives flex muscle over immigration reforms

`Now the gloves are off'

Intelligence overhaul bill caught up in the dispute

December 05, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A fierce fight is brewing among Republicans over President Bush's plans for sweeping immigration reform during his second term, pitting one of the president's highest priorities against a determined conservative opposition on Capitol Hill.

As Bush begins his push to enact the plan, a top priority and one he sees as an element of his legacy, a powerful group of conservative Republicans in the House is flexing its muscles to make it clear that it intends to block the measure, or at least add major restrictions to it.

Nowhere are the battle lines clearer than in the current negotiations over a measure to reorganize the nation's intelligence community in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The fate of that bill, strongly supported by most Republicans and Democrats in Congress, is hanging by a thread because of staunch opposition from House conservatives, in large part because it omits the restrictive immigration provisions they demanded. They call such changes imperative to fighting terrorism.

No matter what the outcome of the pitched negotiations, the showdown demonstrates the intensity of the fight to come next year. The immigration debate has awakened deep divisions among Republicans, between some members of Congress and a president they fear will drift too far to the center in his quest for a lasting legacy.

Bush has "got to recognize the fact that if he continues to push it as hard as he is, that this is really going to divide" Republicans, said Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a conservative who leads his party's immigration reform caucus and has introduced legislation to put a moratorium on immigration.

Conservatives who oppose Bush's immigration plans were willing to keep quiet about their views in the interest of presenting a united front for Bush during the presidential race, Tancredo said. But "now the gloves are off. There are a lot of members who have bitten their lip during the campaign, but now the campaign's over. They can stand their ground, and they intend to."

Lawmakers and senior aides see the fight as one of several awaiting Bush at the start of his second term when he asks Congress to help him achieve his highest goals, including making major changes to the Social Security program and overhauling the tax code.

Most believe that Bush will have to work with Democrats to get what he wants on many of these issues, including immigration, but some Republicans worry that in doing so, the president may be willing to cut deals they cannot live with, leaving them to vote against popular Bush initiatives or risk alienating their like-minded constituents.

That anxiety has driven much of the dispute over the intelligence measure. With the backing of many Republicans, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, insisted on preserving provisions in that measure to deny illegal immigrants driver's licenses, send asylum-seekers back to their home countries while their applications were being considered, and speed up deportations.

"Many see this as a precursor to future potential fights we could have on a variety of issues," said one senior Republican aide in the House. "We need to have deals that a majority of our guys can support."

At the moment, it appears that Bush's immigration plan would not qualify. He has proposed a new guest worker program that would allow people who are in the United States illegally to gain temporary legal status by registering for a card that would entitle them to work in the country for three years.

The plan has opponents among Democrats and Republicans alike. Conservative Republicans seeking to limit immigration lambaste the plan as a blanket grant of amnesty that rewards people for breaking the law to enter the country.

"He's trying to do something that half of his members in the House don't want," Tancredo said.

"The Republicans aren't going to walk off a cliff for a lame-duck president," said Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an immigration control group that is vehemently against Bush's proposal. "It's funny, he's saying he came out with a lot of political capital after the election. It's like, well, you're not running again, buddy. Members of the House are always running."

On the other side, many Democrats see Bush's plan as ineffective, arguing that few immigrants would come forward to gain legal status only to risk losing it after three years. They argue that any immigration measure must give undocumented workers a path to legalization.

Still, Democrats say they are encouraged to hear Bush pushing hard for immigration reform, and insist they are ready to work with him to reach an agreement.

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