A deep split within the Republican Party over immigration policy is now reaching into the highest levels of the GOP machinery, as members of the Republican National Committee, which typically operates in lock step with the White House, are poised to vote today on a resolution repudiating President Bush's call for a guest-worker program.
A member of the committee, which acts as a national steering panel for the party, gathered enough signatures to force the vote, setting up a highly unusual public debate over an issue on which Bush has set a clear direction.
Bush has proposed letting workers from abroad, as well as some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., legally take jobs in the United States as temporary workers. But the resolution before the party leadership today argues that a guest-worker program would "only result in more illegal immigration and increased crime in our country."
Republican strategists had hoped to avoid this week's confrontation, scrambling late Wednesday and Thursday to draft an alternative resolution that embraces a guest-worker program while calling for tougher border security to deter illegal immigration.
The disagreement illustrates Bush's challenge in trying to bridge GOP divisions about how to resolve the growing border crisis without alienating Latino voters by appearing to be anti-immigrant.
The issue has exposed tensions between crucial components of the GOP base.
Business interests, including agriculture and manufacturing firms, donate millions of dollars to Republican candidates and rely on immigrant labor; they want a guest-worker plan. So do some Republican senators.
Cultural conservatives oppose any guest-worker program, as does the House leadership. Many charge that illegal workers are stealing American jobs and flouting the law.
The Senate is scheduled to take up the matter next month, and immigration has already emerged as a defining issue in many of this year's competitive congressional elections.
The Republican National Committee showdown arose after Arizona anti-immigration activist Randy Pullen, one of that state's national committee members, secured the 10 signatures necessary to force the vote.
In Arizona, where the state's Democratic governor has declared a state of emergency amid rampant illegal border crossings, voters and Republican activists had "a lot of questions about where the [Republican] party was on this issue," Pullen said. "There was not a clear statement on it."
Pullen's resolution calls on Congress and the president to enact laws restricting illegal immigration and to withhold federal funds from any state or local government that acts as a "sanctuary" for illegal immigrants by failing to fully cooperate with immigration authorities. Pullen said the resolution "pretty much reflects where the American public is, which is they want the border secured and they want illegal immigration ended. And they don't want amnesty provided to those in the country now."
The proposed resolution does not directly affect the Republican Party platform or the congressional agenda, but any vote by leading GOP activists directly countering White House views sets a particularly awkward stage as Bush seeks to make immigration a top-tier issue for 2006.
Pullen said he intended to pursue his resolution despite appeals from some committee members to sign on to an alternative proposal drafted Thursday. Instead, he was working the phones late into the night seeking support for his resolution.
The alternative proposal, which matches Bush's position, backs a "functional program" allowing foreign workers "to enter the United States to work for a fixed period of time." The resolution also calls for assurances that workers can be identified and tracked once they are in the country.
The sponsor of the alternative language, Bill Crocker of Texas, said Thursday that he expected most of his fellow committee members to oppose Pullen.
"I don't think anybody here wants to take issue with or embarrass the president at all," Crocker said during an interview on the sidelines of the committee's winter meeting at a Washington hotel.
Crocker said the issue was particularly sensitive because Republicans were trying to attract Latino voters in key states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Florida and California. Bush and his strategists have sought to reverse a perception -- shaped by California's Proposition 187 campaign of 1994, which Republican then-Gov. Pete Wilson supported -- that the GOP is an anti-immigrant party. The perception helped make California a Democrat-dominated state.
"It is an extremely sensitive subject, because you're dealing with the lives of 11 million people, and there are a lot of people who want them to be treated as well as possible," Crocker said. "Texas, Arizona, California and other states are dealing with an increasing Hispanic population whose allegiances the Republicans would very much like to earn. The last thing we need to do is deal with them insensitively."
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy declined to comment directly on the Republican National Committee debate. She said Bush continued to back "comprehensive immigration reform that includes border security, interior enforcement and the temporary worker program."
Committee spokesman Brian Jones acknowledged Thursday that there was "a vigorous discussion within the Republican Party" about immigration that was "reflected in our current meeting." But he sought to play down the divisions.
"Everyone is unified in the belief that the first step of any immigration program is making sure that we secure our borders," Jones said.
The immigration dispute is unusual for a party leadership that has typically operated in full coordination with White House strategists on every policy initiative, such as Social Security privatization, tax cuts and education legislation. The debate reflects a turbulent time in the party, as Bush and other officials try to distance themselves from scandals and other problems that have led to sliding approval ratings.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman will focus in part on ethics measures during an address today that, according to a draft version, does not touch on the immigration debate.
White House strategist Karl Rove is also scheduled to address the gathering today. He has made few appearances since coming under scrutiny in the investigation of the disclosure of an undercover CIA agent's identity. Rove is an architect of a GOP party-building strategy that relies in part on courting Latino voters.
Several other resolutions on today's agenda are more typical of committee officials' discussions. They include measures to honor the late President Reagan; acknowledge the bravery of Iraqi citizens and U.S. troops; recognize the strength of the economy under Bush's presidency; and congratulate Bush for his Supreme Court nominations.