- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican yesterday said he has told President Bush to be prepared to save their party from a bad immigration bill through his veto pen.

The comments from Minority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi came minutes before the Senate voted to cut in half the guest-worker program in the massive immigration bill, the first blow that strained, but did not break, the bipartisan coalition trying to pass the measure.

Mr. Lott said Mr. Bush needs to get more involved in the debate by drawing lines in the sand that Democrats can’t cross.

“He’s got to be prepared to say to [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, ‘If you come up with something that really makes a bad situation worse, I will veto it,’ ” Mr. Lott told reporters yesterday. “That is the ultimate weapon, and it has to be held in abeyance to keep the pressure on us to do this right.”

The former Senate Republican leader said he told Mr. Bush this in a recent conversation, telling the president “it’s important you emphasize that you want immigration reform, but not just any immigration reform.”

But other Republicans laughed at that notion, saying there is no way Mr. Bush would veto a bill that reaches his desk.

“Whatever might be described as ‘comprehensive immigration reform,’ if it is put in front of the president, it will be the equivalent of hanging a pork chop in front of a hungry dog,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican.

Mr. Lott’s comments underscore the fact that Republican senators have helped start a process over which they have little control once the bill leaves the Senate. House rules give Democrats near total control there, and Democrats also will control any conference committee between the House and Senate.

For now, Republicans are trying to fend off changes they think damage the “grand bargain” reached by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat; Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican; and the Bush administration.

Under the deal, Republicans accepted offering the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens now in the country legal status and a path to citizenship while Democrats accepted creating the guest-worker program and changing rules for how future immigrants are selected. Both sides said they agreed on the need for better border security and workplace enforcement.

The bargain took its first blow yesterday when the amendment passed cutting the guest-worker program in half from 400,000 per year. The amendment also removed an “adjuster” provision that would have allowed the program’s numbers to expand up to 600,000 per year if the economy needed the workers.

The amendment passed 74-24, with 46 Democrats, 27 Republicans and one independent voting for it, while 21 Republicans, two Democrats and one independent opposed it.

“It does not destroy the bill — it does allow for a guest-worker program, but a more prudent one,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat and the amendment’s sponsor.

Mr. Kyl, whose support is a linchpin on the grand bargain, said it was a damaging but not lethal blow. Still, he said he intends to offer an amendment to return the upward-adjustment provision and said for him, the grand bargain will collapse “if we’re not able to get an adjuster back in.”

Under the bill, guest workers could come for up to three three-year cycles, during which they could work for two years then return home for a year.

Mr. Kennedy, who voted against the amendment in order to defend the grand bargain, said the 400,000 number came from studies about business’ need for workers, and was meant to approximate the number of illegal aliens now taking jobs. He said 400,000 may even have been too low to start.

The Bush administration tried but failed to stop the amendment, with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez saying it strikes at “a central component of the bipartisan agreement.” He said it would repeat the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty, which did not allow for an orderly flow of future workers.

Also yesterday, the administration released an official statement strongly endorsing the overall bill.

“The administration looks forward to a serious, civil, and conclusive debate that results in a comprehensive solution to our nation’s immigration challenges,” the White House said in the statement.

On Tuesday, the Senate rejected an attempt to strip out the entire guest-worker program. But several senators have said they might offer another amendment reducing the number of guest workers to 100,000.

There are several other deal-breakers for Republicans on the horizon as well — including amendments to restore the current immigration system and revamp the bill’s new point system, which rewards those with needed skills or higher educational attainment.

Several Democratic presidential hopefuls are pressing the case for redrawing the rules on families to allow in more-distant relatives and higher numbers.

Meanwhile, Republicans are pressing amendments that could cause Democrats to abandon the deal — including stricter border security and removing judicial review for those whose visas are revoked after they arrive in the U.S.

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