Migrant measure stalls in Senate

Qualms about details threaten compromise

April 07, 2006|By MAURA REYNOLDS | MAURA REYNOLDS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- An immigration overhaul plan that only hours before seemed on its way to Senate passage stalled last night, raising the prospect that no action would be taken at least until after the two-week Easter recess that begins today.

At a joint appearance yesterday morning, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada all but declared victory for a compromise plan that would have granted a path to legal status and citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million immigrants now in the United States illegally.

"We've had a huge breakthrough," said Frist.

"We can't declare victory. But we've moved a long ways down the road," said Reid.

But snags soon surfaced among Democrats and Republicans - each apparently concerned about substantive details of the plan and potential political fallout from voting on an issue that has provoked strong feelings as well as mass protests across the country.

Looming over the process was the fact that thousands of Hispanic and other immigrants have poured into the streets to protest a more restrictive approach.

For most Democrats, who were prepared to support the compromise, the primary concern was that key provisions in the pending Senate bill might be changed or eliminated when House and Senate delegates meet to reconcile differences between the two bills. The House version contains what many Democrats believe are Draconian measures. Members of the conference committee will have wide latitude to shape the measure that goes back to each chamber for a final vote.

As Democrats are in the minority in both houses, and the committee will be dominated by Republicans, they fear being presented with a bill they would find unacceptable but could not stop.

"The biggest concern on the part of the Democrats is: How do we preserve this compromise all the way through the process?" said Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat. "There is a lot of experience here with good bills going into conference committee and transforming."

On the Republican side, concern appeared to fall into two categories: senators who favored a more restrictive approach to the path to legal status and citizenship, and senators who might support some compromise but wanted to test the waters back in their home states before voting.

The Senate proposal, drafted by Republican Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, offers paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants who entered the country before January 2004 as long as they meet a string of requirements, including learning English. It also includes measures to enhance border security and increase employer sanctions in an effort to stem the tide of illegal immigrants seeking work.

The Hagel-Martinez proposal would differentiate between recent arrivals and illegal immigrants who have been in the country for five years or longer. The more recent arrivals would have to leave the United States as part of the process of legalizing their status; illegal immigrants in the country for five years or more could complete the process without recrossing the border.

Democratic leaders said they were seeking a guarantee from Frist that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee - who passed a more permissive version of the bill last week - would negotiate with the House.

Congressional procedures require the House and Senate to agree on a joint version of every bill, known as a "conference report," that must be approved by both chambers before it is sent to the president for his signature.

Many Democrats made the argument that the Republican bill was better than no bill.

"I voted for the original bill ... that came out of [the] Judiciary Committee, and I believe that is preferable," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "But I also think some forward motion on a balanced bill is critical. Right now, it appears this compromise is the only proposal that might provide that."

President Bush, who has repeatedly called for a guest worker program but has maintained a pointed silence on the details of immigration reform, urged the Senate to complete its work on the bill but did not weigh in on what the bill should include.

"I'm pleased that Republicans and Democrats in the United States Senate are working together to get a comprehensive immigration bill," Bush said during a visit to North Carolina.

It was not clear whether the huge street protests in Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and elsewhere in recent weeks might have shifted the political equation for House Republicans. Some remained bound and determined to defeat the Senate approach.

"It's miserable public policy, and it will be rejected by the House of Representatives," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and a leading voice opposed to giving legal status to undocumented immigrants.

Tancredo said he considered any proposal that would offer eventual citizenship to people who crossed the border illegally an amnesty.

"I promise you, we are not going to get a majority of the House on an amnesty for 10 million people," Tancredo said.

But some Republicans who voted for the Sensenbrenner bill four months ago said they would support an approach similar to that in the Senate bill: a limited guest worker program and some form of legalization for workers who have been in the United States for a few years.

"A strong and secure border is of the utmost concern for our national security. However, true immigration reform must also provide a framework for immigrants to work in this country legally," said Rep. Mary Bono, a California Republican.

But House GOP leaders gave little indication either way whether they would soften their legislation, which would make it a felony to be in the United States without a valid visa.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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