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Make or break on immigration

The bitter battle over the immigration bill has become a legislative minefield in this election year, though whether it will yield heavy political casualties in November remains to be seen.

To say that this issue is a wilderness of thorns, festering party divisions and brewing voter backlashes is putting it mildly. It could inflict additional wounds on George Bush's battle-scarred presidency, shrink the GOP's congressional majority and, possibly, hurt some vulnerable Democrats as well. Let's take some of these pitfalls one by one.

Frankly, it is difficult at this juncture to see how the House and Senate can agree a compromise bill that can attract a majority in either chamber. Their two respective bills are diametrically opposed to one another.

The House wants beefed-up, effective enforcement only and no other reforms until we've prevented all illegals from crossing the Mexican-U.S. border or at least significantly reduced their numbers. The Senate generally wants that, plus other reforms, including a guest-worker program that lets migrants cross and recross the border to take jobs in the U.S. when available and would allow those who've been here several years to eventually become citizens after paying taxes, fines and meeting some other legal requirements. Neither side is willing to give at this point and leaders in both chambers say the other's bill would be a nonstarter with their members.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has a political rule on bringing bills to the floor: They must first be supported by a majority of the majority, that is a majority of Republicans. As of now, say party leaders, a majority does not exist and isn't likely to if a House-Senate conference produces a blend of the two bills with any citizenship provisions.

White House political strategist Karl Rove met Wednesday with House lawmakers to encourage some give in on their position and the word from the closed-door meeting was that he got "a cold reception."

This sets up a possible scenario where the Republicans are unable to produce a bill that can win a majority of both houses and that, as much as anything, would drive Congress' dismal poll ratings even lower --hurting the Republicans in charge of its legislative machinery and President Bush, who would be seen as ineffectual in enacting his agenda.

Polls show strong support for the House approach. But while that bill alone would satisfy the GOP's conservative base and a large portion of the general public, it could still come back to bite Republicans in this year's elections and in 2008 and beyond.

The reason: the large and fast-growing Hispanic electorate, who gave Mr. Bush nearly 40 percent of their vote, would be angered and activated as never before by a House bill that make felons of illegal Hispanic workers. Most of that vote would go to the Democrats this time. That could topple some vulnerable Republican candidates in the fall.

What is shaping up here is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't political conundrum for which there are few sure-fire options.

If conservative Republicans cave in to most of the elements in the Senate bill, it could risk alienating a significant portion of their already badly divided base. If the GOP tried to go with an enforcement-only bill along the lines of what the House has passed, it would turn Hispanic voters against them for years to come.

If Congress does nothing this year about an issue that has been driven to the top of the agenda, an already angry electorate would have further reason to throw out many marginal incumbents that could threaten Republican control of Congress.

Still, this doesn't mean a skillfully written House-Senate compromise couldn't thread the needle and appeal to enough lawmakers with a bill tough on enforcement now and including long-term reforms in the years to come. This is where some skillful political leadership is needed, something sorely lacking on either side of this debate.

My guess is that the public is ready to support a more comprehensive reform that has some limited legal, card-carrying temp worker system and a tough-love, back-of-the-line citizenship road for illegals who have lived and worked here for years.

Americans want Congress to fix the problem of illegal immigration, and they will have little patience with lawmakers who say they tried but could not reach an agreement on a sensible, long-term solution.

I agree with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who says: "To do nothing is a political loser."

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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