The Senate yesterday approved immediately spending nearly $2 billion to stop illegal immigration, the largest such infusion of emergency cash for the effort in recent years.
Nearly every member of the Senate voted in favor of the new spending, but Democrats and Republicans split over whether to find cuts elsewhere in the massive spending bill to offset the border security expenditures. Republicans ultimately prevailed and roughly 3 percent will be cut from defense spending contained in the same bill.
“Porous borders are a threat to our national security, and the Senate has acted today to provide vital funding that will increase our border defenses,” Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said after the vote.
Republicans turned back an effort by Minority Leader Harry Reid to grant the same expenditures for border security but without making cuts elsewhere in the emergency spending bill, which has ballooned to a $106.5 billion proposal. The Nevada Democrat, whose amendment failed on a mostly party-line 54-44 vote, said the Republican amendment would hurt the military.
“Democrats offered a way to secure our borders and support our troops,” he said. “Instead, Senate Republicans chose to slash $2 billion desperately needed by our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in order to offset the costs of additional border security.”
Yesterday’s action — if approved by the House — would make a comprehensive immigration bill like President Bush wants more difficult to pass through Congress. Border security unites virtually all lawmakers, while the guest-worker program is disliked by liberals who say it creates unfair competition for American workers, and a path to citizenship is disliked by conservatives who view it as amnesty.
The 59-39 vote came one day after Mr. Bush appeared to endorse a Senate proposal that would give many illegal aliens already in the country a path to citizenship.
After meeting at the White House with more than a dozen senators Tuesday, Mr. Bush told reporters that there was a broad and bipartisan consensus for immigration reform legislation that “recognizes we must have a temporary worker program, a bill that does not grant automatic amnesty to people, but a bill that says somebody who is working here on a legal basis has the right to get in line to become a citizen.”
By yesterday, however, there was some dispute about whether Mr. Bush had actually endorsed the Senate proposal hatched early this month by Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida.
Under that plan, illegal aliens who have been in the U.S. five years or more could apply for citizenship without leaving the country while those who have been here between two and five years would have to apply at a point of entry. Those here less than two years would have to return to their home country to apply for citizenship.
“I’m extremely confident that there was no endorsement,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who didn’t attend the White House meeting because he thinks the Hagel-Martinez proposal amounts to amnesty. “Matter of fact, I’m extremely confident that they were told, ‘I’m not endorsing the bill.’ ”
Mr. Cornyn, one of Mr. Bush’s most ardent supporters in Congress, said his information was from a “highly placed source in the White House” but he declined to elaborate.
“That’s not true at all,” said Mr. Martinez, who attended the meeting. “That was clearly discussed yesterday and clarified in about three different ways with clear questions and answers and he said as long as there’s not automatic citizenship, as long as there’s not amnesty.”
Asked if he had any doubts that Mr. Bush supported the Hagel-Martinez proposal, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, replied, “Not really. But he has not committed to what ‘automatic’ means.”
In any case, Mr. Bush was cautious.
Mr. Graham said he asked Mr. Bush if he defined “amnesty” as any program that doesn’t force illegals to leave the country altogether before applying for citizenship — a question that gets to the very heart of the debate.
“You don’t want me to answer that question,” Mr. Bush replied, according to Mr. Graham.
Other Republicans on Capitol Hill said Mr. Bush is either misinformed or just flat wrong if he supports Hagel-Martinez.
“I know he wants to move something forward,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said. “I think they need to study the language carefully because I do not believe that language in the bill comes close to meeting his standards that he’s set forth.”
Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, denounced the proposal.
“I feel very strongly that we should not reward illegal behavior with amnesty,” he said. “I think this convoluted three-tiered approach rewards illegal behavior and I don’t think that’s the right policy for this country, notwithstanding what the president had to say.”
Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and longtime advocate for immigration reform, said he was glad to see the new spending for border security, but he still has a big question.
“Will the president actually enforce the law?” wondered the Republican. “I know he says he will, but he has demonstrated over and over again that he will not.”