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Immigrant Bill Snared by Web of Suspicion

Times Staff Writer

This week’s Senate stalemate on immigration sent a sobering message: Distrust between Republicans and Democrats has reached a level that can derail agreements, even when leaders in both parties publicly endorse the same policies.

Almost all the negotiators on the issue agreed that a clear majority of senators -- as many as two-thirds -- were prepared to vote for compromise legislation that would toughen border security, create a new guest-worker program and establish a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

But the bill stalled Friday and now faces an uncertain future, largely because each party suspects the other of a hidden agenda.

Democrats fear that although Senate Republicans have been offering centrist compromises, they will tilt the bill sharply to the right when it reaches a conference with the House.

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Conversely, Republicans fear that Senate Democrats, while appearing conciliatory, at heart want to block passage of a Senate bill so that the GOP will be forced in this year’s congressional campaigns to defend the much more conservative bill that the House approved in December.

The suspicion over motives suggests that in the difficult and emotional immigration debate, the most impassable border might be the space between two parties bruised by years of partisan conflict.

The inability, or unwillingness, of the two sides to cross that divide provoked intense frustration among many of those pushing for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.

“The divisions in the Republican Party are pronounced, but there are questions for the Democratic Party as well” about its position, said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. “Do they want a bill or do they want an issue? We don’t want to be a football. We want the leaders of both parties to step up and provide a way this can be addressed.”

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Hopes for a Senate agreement soared early Thursday when Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) embraced a compromise bill that blended legislation from Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) with an alternative from Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

The measure would set up procedures leading to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than five years, while establishing tougher rules for those who arrived more recently.

Many supporters of the legislation insisted that Friday’s failure by supporters to muster enough votes to cut off debate on the proposal did not doom it. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he would move the bill through his panel immediately after the Senate returned from its two-week recess.

Some advocates expressed optimism that public pressure would compel senators to overcome the procedural disagreements that prevented votes on the legislation.

“This issue isn’t going away,” said John Gay, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Assn.

But the tensions between and within the parties that blocked the bill’s advancement on Thursday and Friday aren’t going away. Unless differences can be resolved, the Senate is likely to remain deadlocked.

The proximate cause of this week’s breakdown was a series of unusual procedural demands by Reid.

He insisted that Frist limit the number of amendments that could be offered to the bill. He also called on Frist to commit to naming members of the Judiciary Committee -- most of whom favor a comprehensive approach to rewriting immigration laws -- as the representatives who would advocate for the chamber’s bill in negotiations with the House.

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Frist rejected the demands, denouncing them as unreasonable attempts by the minority to dictate Senate procedures to the majority.

These procedural disputes, though, seem only proxies for the larger, more political differences.

Most observers agree that Frist’s insistence on allowing introduction of numerous amendments reflected pressure from Senate conservatives unhappy with the compromise bill that he blessed this week.

Although virtually all Senate Democrats embraced that package, it appears that at most, little more than half the GOP caucus supports it. As a result, Frist faced strong demands from conservative critics to allow votes on amendments that would toughen the legislation’s enforcement provisions and narrow its legalization elements.

Some Democrats may be cooling on the bill because of growing criticism of it from the AFL-CIO, which strongly opposes the measure’s provisions for a guest-worker program. But mostly, Reid’s procedural gambits appeared to reflect Democratic worries of being presented with unpalatable choices if the compromise reached this week is tilted to the right before a final bill emerges.

Repeatedly in recent years, the Senate has forged bipartisan agreements on issues such as energy policy, the Medicare prescription drug plan and renewal of the Patriot Act, only to see much more conservative approaches emerge from conference committees with the House.

Such a shift seems possible again because the House immigration legislation, drafted largely by Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), would not create any guest-worker program or a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Instead, it focuses on tough enforcement measures, such as the building of a border wall and a provision designating illegal immigrants as felons.

House leaders have said that in negotiations with the Senate, they will seek to make illegal presence in the U.S. a misdemeanor rather than a felony. But most Democrats favor maintaining illegal residency as a civil, not a criminal, violation.

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If the legislation is moved to the right on that and other issues in a House-Senate conference committee, Senate Democrats could be left with a difficult choice just weeks before November’s election: either vote against a bill that includes tough border security, a potential liability at the polls, or accept legislation they consider too punitive for immigrants.

Among Democrats, the fear is so great that a GOP-controlled conference committee would produce a bill they consider unacceptable that some have questioned the wisdom of passing any measure through the Senate.

“In a number of our meetings, people have said there is no sense in even getting started if we’ve got Sensenbrenner out there” insisting on an enforcement-only bill, Kennedy said.

But Republicans -- and even some overhaul advocates, such as Sharry -- fear a different political motivation for Reid’s procedural demands: a belief that Republicans will be hurt in November if no bill passes the Senate and if the GOP’s only formal position on immigration is the House bill, with its controversial felony provision.

Martinez said many Senate Republicans suspected that Democrats preferred “that the voice of the Republicans on this issue be the House bill.”


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