Immigration deal doubted

House bill's architect says 2 chambers `moons apart' on compromise


WASHINGTON -- The prime architect of the hard-line House bill on immigration policy said yesterday that he was committed to finding a compromise with the Senate on the issue, but he termed the two chambers "moons apart" and expressed doubts about the chances of finding common ground.

"I would like to see a bill passed and signed into a law," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican. "However, I am a realist."

Sensenbrenner, expected to serve as the House's lead player in negotiations with the Senate on forging compromise legislation, said he anticipated that those talks would prove "very difficult."

In a sign of the challenge, Sensenbrenner dismissed as a "non-starter" a key component of the immigration bill the Senate passed Thursday - the creation of a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Sensenbrenner's comments at a Capitol Hill news conference underscored that the gulf separating the House and Senate immigration bills might make an accord on a compromise impossible. If Congress can't agree on joint legislation, President Bush's push for the first major rewrite of immigration law in 20 years will have failed.

Bush has backed the multifaceted approach contained in the Senate bill, which a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers steered to passage.

Like a measure the House passed in December, the bill calls for significant improvements in border security and a crackdown on businesses hiring illegal immigrants. But while the House bill focused solely on enforcement concerns, the Senate measure also would set up a guest worker program and establish the legalization route for illegal immigrants who pay a fine and back taxes and meet other requirements.

For the senators who backed their chamber's bill, the legalization provision is one of its central pillars. But for Sensenbrenner and other conservatives in the House, it is a fatal flaw that they criticize as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.

Sensenbrenner reiterated that for him and his fellow conservatives, any possible compromise with the Senate must maintain the House's emphasis on enforcement efforts.

"A guest worker program can be on the table [during negotiations] if it does not include amnesty, but only if sanctions [on businesses hiring illegal immigrants] and increased border patrols are effective," he said.

Sensenbrenner's comments reflect the convictions of dozens of House Republicans, as well as their concerns that agreeing to any legalization provision would cost them at the polls. But some congressional observers also suggested that his remarks represent a tactical position at the start of the search for a compromise.

The House GOP leadership "feels obliged at this point to take a very hard line and discourage any speculation that the House is ready to make a change," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. "I think the House leadership wants to go into the negotiations in as strong a position as [it] can, which is show no interest in compromise at this point, publicly."

After the Senate approved its bill Thursday, several of its supporters said intensified lobbying by the administration would be essential to persuade the House to accept a bill that addresses the residency status of illegal immigrants. But Sensenbrenner scoffed at the likelihood that White House efforts could sway House conservatives, noting the chilly reception that Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, received during two recent meetings on Capitol Hill as he pressed the president's case.

Although Sensenbrenner did not attend the private sessions, he said that his colleagues "jumped all over Rove," and that they complained Bush and the Senate are "not where the people are at" on the legalization issue.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that the administration would stay involved as the House-Senate talks unfold. "The White House is going to be actively engaged in reaching out to members of both houses, to try to come up with a bill that meets the criteria that the president laid out" in a nationally televised speech this month, Snow said.

Snow added that the White House was addressing House concerns through Bush's plan to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to back up Border Patrol agents. "A lot of House members say, `We want to do border enforcement first,'" said Snow. "Border enforcement starts the first full week of June. It's already happening."

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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