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3/23: Doubts Arise on Immigration Bill’s Chances
Released 25 March 2007  By RACHEL L. SWARNS - New York Times

Doubts Arise on Immigration Bill’s Chances

New York Times
March 23, 2007

WASHINGTON, March 22 — House lawmakers stood before the television cameras on Thursday and hailed the introduction of a new measure to secure the border and move millions of illegal immigrants toward citizenship.

But behind the scenes, there was much more uncertainty than celebration among proponents of what would be the most substantial overhaul of immigration laws in two decades.

Three months into the new Congress, immigration legislation is hitting some unexpected roadblocks. A mix of presidential politics and unforeseen fissures between Democrats and their Republican allies has stalled movement in the Senate.

Key lawmakers in both chambers seem to be moving to the right to assuage conservatives who helped derail immigration legislation last year. Now there are doubts as to whether Congress will actually send an immigration bill to President Bush this year.

Only a few months ago, Democrats and Republicans alike were predicting that immigration legislation would move relatively smoothly — with bipartisan support — through the new Democratic-controlled Congress. Lawmakers and advocates for immigrants remain hopeful that that can still happen, but they said the political environment had changed.

“I don’t know why we were so naïve to think that things were going to go so swimmingly,” said Michele Waslin of the National Council of La Raza, an immigration advocacy group, who addressed concerns about the stalemate in the Senate. “I sincerely hope the process gets back on track very soon.”

Democratic leaders say Republican backing is critical, both to ensure passage of a bill in the Senate and to protect newly elected moderate and conservative Democrats in the House, some of whom campaigned against legalizing illegal immigrants.

Democrats and Republicans stood side by side at the House news conference Thursday. But the possibility of a partisan rift remains palpable, particularly in the Senate.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is running for president, has distanced himself from Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, as Mr. McCain has faced a barrage of criticism from conservatives who oppose his support of the legalization of illegal immigrants. The two men joined forces last year to help pass the Senate bill, which would have put most of the nation’s illegal aliens on a path to citizenship.

Mr. Kennedy has suggested a plan on his own, but his Republican allies have yet to embrace it. Angered by Mr. Kennedy’s decision to exclude him and other moderates from early negotiations, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and an architect of last year’s bill, is now leading a group of Republicans in drafting a competing set of immigration principles in consultation with the White House. A Senate vote on immigration, which was expected next month, may not take place now until May or June.

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said the discussions between Republican lawmakers and White House officials might result in an agreement markedly different from last year’s Senate bill.

The statement of Republican principles under consideration may eliminate a path to citizenship for guest workers and require illegal immigrants to leave the country before becoming eligible for permanent residence, measures that Mr. Cornyn acknowledged might prove toxic to some Democrats.

“It could well move in a direction that will not result in a bill,” said Mr. Cornyn, who criticized last year’s Senate bill as an amnesty for lawbreakers. “It’s a delicate negotiation, still very much a work in progress.”

Mr. Specter said he still supported last year’s Senate bill, allowing guest workers and illegal immigrants to move toward citizenship. But he, too, said the Republican consensus position might be quite different.

As to whether it would be acceptable to Senate Democrats, Mr. Specter said, “It’s too soon to say.”

The new House bill would also require the majority of illegal immigrants to leave the country before they could move toward citizenship, a requirement opposed by many employers and union leaders.

“If the process doesn’t work and it strands people outside the country, the word will get around and people will stay in a subterranean economy,” said Randel K. Johnson, a vice president of the United States Chamber of Commerce.

The House bill, which is sponsored by Representatives Luis V. Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois, and Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, would give illegal immigrants six years to leave the United States and re-enter legally.

The bill would also allow 400,000 to 600,000 foreigners to participate each year in a new temporary worker program. Both programs would include a path to citizenship and would begin after border security measures and other conditions were in place.

Despite his concerns, Mr. Johnson praised the bill as a step in the right direction. Mr. Kennedy said he hoped it would prod the Senate to “forge the right kind of compromise.” Mr. Flake agreed, saying he still hoped lawmakers would send a bill to Mr. Bush by the fall.

“The fact that we’re moving in the House will jump-start the Senate a little,” Mr. Flake said. “There’s still time.”

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