Foreign-Born President Is a Senate Topic

Times Staff Writers

Foreign-born American citizens should be able to serve as president, several members of Congress and legal scholars told a Senate committee Tuesday, but some of their proposals stop short of letting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pursue the office.

For nearly two hours Tuesday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee held what congressional records indicate was its first hearing since the 1870s on a requirement in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution that presidents be “natural born” citizens.

“It’s become an anachronism that is decidedly un-American,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who heads the Judiciary Committee and sponsored an amendment to make citizens of 20 years eligible for the presidency. Schwarzenegger took the oath of citizenship in September 1983.

The hearing took testimony from nine witnesses, including six members of Congress and three academics.

All favored allowing some foreign-born citizens to be president. In this Congress, members have proposed four different constitutional amendments on the “natural born” clause.


The hearing, while demonstrating bipartisan interest in making the change, also made it clear that changing the clause may not help Schwarzenegger if he ever decides to run.

One witness, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), argued in favor of a law, instead of a constitutional amendment, that would make children born overseas but adopted by American parents “natural born.” The law would do nothing to make Schwarzenegger eligible.

Another witness, Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for American Studies, raised the possibility of barring people who, like Schwarzenegger, hold dual citizenship with the U.S. and another country.

Schwarzenegger retains his Austrian citizenship. And some witnesses endorsed an amendment that would require a person to be a citizen for 35 years to be eligible to run for president.

That would prevent Schwarzenegger from running for the nation’s highest office until 2020, when he would be 73 years old. Any amendment to the Constitution is considered a political longshot. Congressional records show that since the Civil War, there have been at least 26 proposed amendments introduced to change the “natural born citizen” clause.

Advocates for the idea trumpeted Tuesday’s hearing as mild progress, but any change is far off.

No vote is expected on any of the proposed amendments before Congress adjourns.

Several senators stayed away, including ranking Democratic committee member Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who complained that the committee should have used the time to consider allegations of vote suppression in the upcoming presidential election.

Schwarzenegger, who jokes about the possibility of running for president, supports Hatch’s amendment and has called for a national debate on the subject.

Longtime friends say the governor wants to be president.

But the governor’s advisors say he is focused on campaigns for and against various initiatives on the Nov. 2 state ballot.

Two aides said they did not believe the governor had watched the hearing, which was broadcast on the Internet and on cable television.

California’s governor was invoked by name just twice during the hearing. Witnesses spent most of the hearing discussing other issues, from the early history of the clause as a device for preventing monarchy, to the desire of foreign children adopted by American parents to be eligible for the presidency.

But the hearing had a distinct California flavor.

Two of the six members of Congress who testified in favor of amendments Tuesday represent Southern California. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chief financial sponsor of last year’s recall of Gov. Gray Davis, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), a friend of Schwarzenegger since the early 1980s -- have close ties to the governor.

Schwarzenegger also knows Hatch; in 1994, the actor stumped for the senator’s reelection.

Any list of people excluded from the presidency, Rohrabacher said, “would certainly not be complete if the name of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was not mentioned.”

Sounding perhaps the most skeptical note among those who attended, California Democratic U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein, a committee member, said she was reluctant to make the change. Feinstein’s mother was born in Russia, she said.

“Being from an immigrant family myself, I have lived with it myself and in a way come to respect it,” she told reporters.

If the measure passes, she would support a lag time to remove the issue from current politics. “It’s a good idea to have it not go into effect for a while,” she said.

In the audience for the hearing was Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, a former mutual fund manager from the Bay Area and a donor to Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 49 and gubernatorial campaigns. She has set up a website, amendforarnold .com, to push for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to be president.

The group, which she says has 20 active members, is independent from the governor.

“The fact of the matter is,” she said, “nobody would be saying squat about this issue without Arnold.”


Mathews reported from Los Angeles, Schwartz from Washington.