- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday set a firm deadline on President Bush’s efforts to work out an immigration agreement, announcing he will bypass the normal process and have the Senate debate an old immigration bill unless the White House can produce an acceptable alternative by May 14.

Democrats are worried Republicans are stalling the debate, and fear the White House is moving too far toward the Republican position in its behind-the-scenes negotiations. Mr. Reid’s announcement brings the debate back to his terms, but Republicans said the May 14 deadline is unreachable, and that Mr. Reid is short-circuiting the discussions for political reasons.

“I will move to the immigration bill on Wednesday so debate can start on that the following Monday,” Mr. Reid announced on the Senate floor yesterday, referring to a parliamentary maneuver that will allow him to bypass the normal committee process and bring a bill of his choosing to the floor.

Mr. Reid has said for months he wanted to have the debate at the end of May, and his office said the move ensures there is a place holder to begin the immigration debate. Staffers said they will accept a substitute bill if Mr. Bush can broker an agreement between Republicans and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat in the negotiations.

But the move also means an impending showdown for all sides: Mr. Reid and Democrats, who want a bill the liberal interest groups and immigration advocates can live with; Mr. Bush, who desperately wants a legislative accomplishment; Mr. Kennedy, who is under immense pressure from fellow Democrats not to accept a watered-down bill; Republicans, whose conservative base is split on the issue; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who supported last year’s bill but this year has no House Republicans to water down the final version.

“The Democratic leadership would be taking a very great risk to try to force through that bill from last year,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “They may be able to maintain the votes to do it, but I have my doubts.”

Asked whether Republicans would try to filibuster, thus forcing the bill to gain 60 votes, he said, “If they try to bring up last year’s bill, yes.”

Mr. Reid of Nevada plans to use a parliamentary procedure to bring up the bill that passed the Judiciary Committee last year, even though it hasn’t been debated at all this year and even though it was rejected in favor of a more conservative bill, which passed the full Senate 62-36 last year.

Among the differences, the committee bill allowed almost all illegal aliens a path to citizenship without ever having to leave the country, while the bill that passed the full Senate only allowed longtime illegal aliens a direct path to citizenship. Those here between two and five years would have an indirect path, and those here less than two years would have been forced to go home.

A majority of Senate Republicans opposed last year’s bill, and even some who voted for it have said publicly or privately they wouldn’t vote for the same version again this year. So Mr. Bush, who praised last year’s bill as “a good immigration bill,” is now trying to work on a new alternative that would cut down on who is eligible for citizenship rights, and require immigration enforcement before the new worker program and path to citizenship would take effect.

A senior Republican aide involved in the negotiations called Mr. Reid’s move “a threat to fish or cut bait,” but said it exposes a division among Democrats as well.

“These guys want the issue, not an accomplishment. This divides his party as much as ours,” the aide said, adding that Mr. Reid’s move appears designed to force Republicans to filibuster the bill, thus allowing both sides to point fingers at each other.

“He wants us to save Democrats from themselves — ‘Stop me before I take bad votes again.’ That’s where he is. He wants us to be grown-ups,” the aide said.

But Democrats were criticized by Hispanic and immigrant advocacy groups for accepting last year’s bill, which they thought was already too harsh toward illegal aliens, and Democrats are wary of the direction Mr. Bush is taking in his negotiations with Republicans.

A leaked set of proposals showed the White House was open to fines as high as $10,000, a much longer wait for citizenship and more stringent criteria for who would be eligible.

“The White House’s efforts to help these negotiations may in fact succeed only in making it impossible to thread the needle and get a bill done this year,” said one senior Democratic aide who has followed the negotiations.

White House officials, though, continue to say they are optimistic.

“This is a process and discussions are continuing,” spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said. “We intend to push towards having an agreement prior to the debate starting on the 14th.”

The bill also will be a major test for the Republican presidential candidates, particularly Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas, who have been battered on the campaign trail for their support of last year’s bill. Both men, in fact, were sponsors of the committee bill, and both voted for its passage on the Senate floor.

Mr. Brownback already has done an about-face, saying he “would not vote for the same bill” this year because he has since realized it allowed too many immigrants in.

Mr. McCain’s office did not return a call yesterday asking whether he would support the bill again.

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