- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Key backers of the Senate immigration bill said yesterday they are willing to consider a compromise that would delay the guest-worker program and “amnesty” portions until the borders have been secured.

The proposal was floated by Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter in an interview Monday with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“I think it’s worth discussing,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. “Many of us have said we could work on border enforcement and, at the same time, work on other aspects that would take more time.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said a delay will occur anyway because it will take a few years to set up the guest-worker program and the structure to process millions of illegal aliens onto a pathway to citizenship.

“We’ve always understood that,” he said, adding that the final bill must be “comprehensive” and include all provisions.

“That’s the key,” he said, after he, Mr. McCain and others hosted a broad coalition of outside groups demanding a comprehensive bill.

Reaction at the other end of the Capitol was more muted, with at least one key House leader continuing yesterday to point out flaws in the Senate bill.

The House and Senate approved very different immigration bills, with the House focusing on building 700 miles of fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, boosting enforcement and requiring employers to verify that their workers are here legally. The Senate bill boosts enforcement, too, but also creates a program for future immigrant workers and a path to citizenship for many current illegal aliens.

On Monday, Mr. Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who will lead House and Senate negotiators in the conference committee, told The Times that border security should be the top priority in the final bill and that he is open to a compromise that would make the guest-worker program and path to citizenship for illegal aliens contingent on first ensuring a secure border and improved interior enforcement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and key backer of the Senate bill, said yesterday he could see that as a possibility.

“I’m open to the idea that you’d have … border-security benchmarks, interior-enforcement benchmarks, and once that’s fulfilled, you start assimilating people,” he said.

But just a month ago, many of these same senators — including Mr. Specter, Mr. Graham and Mr. Kennedy — voted against a proposal that would have set out a similar timeline requiring border security and improved enforcement before the rest of the Senate bill could proceed.

Mr. McCain, who wasn’t present for the vote last month, said that approach was different from Mr. Specter’s because it would have required the government to certify the border is “sealed” before the rest of the Senate bill could go forward — a standard that he said could “never” be met.

While Mr. Specter’s idea was received in the Senate with cautious optimism, House Republican leaders remained entrenched in their opposition to the Senate bill and stuck by their plans to hold hearings next month pointing out its shortfalls.

The office of House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican — a staunch critic of the Senate bill — had no comment yesterday on Mr. Specter’s statements.

Meanwhile, the office of House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, pointed out yet another flaw in the Senate bill, saying it would actually weaken enforcement of immigration law by only permitting local law enforcement to assist federal agents in enforcing criminal violations of immigration law, not civil violations.

Many lawmakers say a final bill including any form of “amnesty” would never pass the House, whether those provisions are delayed or not.

“I don’t think the House will go for anything that puts citizenship in the bill,” said Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, who thinks a compromise bill with a guest-worker program could work, as long as it didn’t include citizenship for the millions of illegals already here, as the Senate bill would do.

In his comments Monday, Mr. Specter said that the Senate would insist that the final bill include a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for many illegal aliens, but that he is also open to setting goals for border and interior enforcement ahead of those provisions.

Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, said it’s a “very big deal” that Mr. Specter is willing to put border security first in the final bill. He also said he has a bill that may bridge the “amnesty” divide between the two chambers because he thinks many House Republicans could accept a guest-worker program that requires illegal aliens to return to their home country before they can apply for it.

He has a proposal that would set up a privately run system to do this, and he thinks this “no-amnesty guest-worker” program could work.

“I think the majority of House conservatives would be open to a no-amnesty guest-worker program,” he said.

His bill also would set up a time frame, dedicating two years exclusively to border security before progressing to the rest of the bill.

Mr. Specter told The Times on Monday that his staff is reviewing Mr. Pence’s proposal.

Mr. Pence said the Senate bill’s citizenship approach is a “non-starter” in the House because it would let illegal aliens remain in the U.S. and eventually become legal, which most Republicans reject as amnesty.

Mr. McCain, Mr. Kennedy and others insist that it’s not amnesty because the illegal aliens would have to fulfill a long list of demands and pay a fine before they can get in line for citizenship.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said that although he is “encouraged” by Mr. Specter’s recent comments, he is concerned that such a compromise could allow “amnesty” without truly ensuring the borders are secure and immigration law is being properly enforced.

He said lawmakers shouldn’t accept the Senate’s contentious proposals “with nothing more than a promise for enforcement.”

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