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Senators grasp at a chance for reform

By Karoun Demirjian

WASHINGTON—Lawmakers who back immigration reform, recognizing that their chances are dwindling rapidly, are girding for a last-ditch attempt to pass a sweeping bill before their efforts are swallowed up by an early campaign season and an acrimonious political mood.

An unusual bipartisan group of senators hopes to present this week the outlines of an immigration plan designed to win crucial support from conservatives. If they succeed, President Bush is expected to throw his support behind the plan, which could be his final chance for a major domestic accomplishment in his second term.

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This effort comes against the backdrop of expected mass marches and demonstrations supporting immigration rights on Tuesday in major cities, including Chicago.

The group of senators discussing the reform plan includes everyone from conservative Southwesterners such as Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) to liberal New Englanders like Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The group includes presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.), who wrote an immigration bill last year with Kennedy.

“Weʼve made tremendous progress, and thereʼs a real hope to get to a bill of significance,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a participant in the talks.

It that hope is realized, the Senate would likely vote on the bill by the end of May The real challenge, however, would be in the House, where many Republicans and conservative Democrats are dead-set against any bill that they believe would reward lawbreakers or provide “amnesty” for those who entered the country illegally.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), reluctant to have Democrats alone face the wrath of voters opposed to a sweeping bill, has told the White House she would not bring an immigration measure to the House floor unless Bush can persuade at least 70 Republicans to vote for it.

Bush, top Democrats and moderate Republicans favor some way for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country to become citizens after paying a fine, learning U.S. civics and working legally in the country.

Those taking a harder line support stronger border enforcement and strong penalties for illegal immigrants.

The Senate group is discussing a middle way: a plan that includes the “path to citizenship” and guest worker program favored by the reform camp, but subject to a “trigger” so they would kick in only once real progress was made toward tougher enforcement. The hope is that this trigger mechanism would attract enough conservatives for the bill to squeak through the House.

Itʼs a long shot. And no one has more riding on it politically than Bush.

With just a few months left until his presidency is all but eclipsed by the run-up to the 2008 election, and experiencing difficult relations with the new Democratic Congress, Bush has seized upon immigration reform as the chief domestic issue around which to build consensus and cement his legacy.

Bush, who developed a strong relationship with the Hispanic community as Texas governor, also has a longtime goal of bringing more Latinos into the Republican Party. A well-received immigration bill could help achieve that, while failure risks having the Republican being seen among Hispanics as anti-immigrant.

Persuading the Senate

“In many ways, the Republican Party is hanging itself on the immigration issue,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Because immigration change is more popular among Democrats than Republicans, Bush will have to enter the fight on the side of Democratic leaders, using his presidential powers on members of his own party.

The administration has not launched a full-fledged effort to collect the House votes yet, but it has turned considerable resources and attention to the Senate process, dispatching Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to the meetings, and floating its own proposals as well.

The logic of spending such considerable effort on a Senate that is likely to pass a bill is tactical: where Senate Republicans, lead, the administration hopes, conservative House members will follow.

Senators expect it to take about 18 months from the time a bill is passed before the triggerʼs benchmarks—which may include an increase in Border Patrol agents, adoption of biometric ID cards for visa recipients and allocation of resources for barriers and 24- hour visual security in specific border locations—are certified by the Department of Homeland Security and visas begin to be processed.

The proposal is expected to include a “Z” visa program enabling undocumented workers already in the U.S. to work toward getting a green card, as well as various guest worker visa categories that could be obtained and renewed every three years for a fee.

The administration recently suggest instituting a 13-year work requirement for guest laborers hoping to apply for green cards, as well as a special category of documentation to allow well-to-do immigrants—those with incomes at 150 percent of the poverty line and health insurance—to apply for special permission to bring their families into the country.

A House bill introduced by Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in March also proposed a guest worker program through which immigrants could apply for temporary visas and eventually citizenship. Like the Senate measure, the bill tries to lure conservatives with a tough stance on enforcement, but it does not include a trigger mechanism and is not expected to go far in the House, at least not as is.

Strong resistance remains

It is not only Republicans who oppose comprehensive reform. House Democrats include conservative voices on immigration, particularly among freshman representatives from rural and working-class districts.

Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) is one of them. “People do not trust, and they donʼt believe that the enforcement and the border protection is going to be there,” Boyda said. “We need a system thatʼs workable, that employers can use to see whoʼs here legally. But no effort has really be made to implement that.”

Not long ago, 98 of the 202 Republicans in the House—plus Boyda and Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.)—sent a letter to Pelosi asking her to oppose any bill that “put illegal immigrants on the path to amnesty.”

Despite such statements, some lawmakers say there is an overwhelming willingness to at, especially if one reads between the lines.

“Iʼve met with many Republicans in the House,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who heads the House immigration subcommittee. “I realize that itʼs a long way from private discussion to a vote on the floor…but thereʼs certainly a basis for moving forward.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised a Senate debate on immigration in the last two weeks of May. But if no agreement is reached soon, Reid may invoke “Rule 14” on the immigration legislation—bypassing the traditional Judiciary Committee approval process and bringing the matter straight to the floor—if it appears there is enough accord on the bill to do so.

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