Thursday, August 3, 2006

The Senate did an abrupt about-face yesterday, voting overwhelmingly to begin paying for 370 miles of fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border, just three weeks after voting against the same spending.

The amendment’s sponsor said senators were so embarrassed by that July 13 vote that most felt they had to reverse course and vote for it this time — especially after so many were on record in May voting to build the fence in the first place. The amendment, which provides nearly $2 billion for the project, passed 94-3, with 66 senators switching from “no” to “yes” votes since last month.

“I think people wanted to get right,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “People heard from their constituents after they voted to authorize the fence in May and then voted against funding it a couple of weeks ago.”

The fence has become one of the flash points as Congress and President Bush try to craft a new immigration enforcement policy this year piece by piece. Mr. Bush travels to Texas today to review operations at the border, including the success of his plan to deploy the National Guard to assist the U.S. Border Patrol in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

This week, the president reached his goal of assigning 6,000 Guard troops to the border states by Aug. 1. Still, of the 6,340 troops assigned as of yesterday, only 2,675 troops, or 42 percent, were “forward deployed.” The rest are at joint task force headquarters, in training or in transit.

But the Guard’s presence has led to a 25 percent drop in apprehensions at the border compared with the same time last year, suggesting the troops are having success in preventing illegal aliens from trying to cross.

That good news, though, was tempered by a government report that found Department of Homeland Security employees were fooled by counterfeit driver’s licenses in nine different tests by undercover investigators at U.S. border crossings. The Government Accountability Office said that hole in security “potentially allows terrorists or others involved in criminal activity to pass freely into the United States from Canada or Mexico.”

Democrats seized on the report as evidence Mr. Bush has fallen short on a key measure of homeland security.

“The record is clear: for more than five years, the president has failed to secure our borders and to enforce our immigration laws,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who added that Republicans in Congress have let Mr. Bush get away with underfunding the Border Patrol and have delayed “real immigration reform” by fighting among themselves over whether to do enforcement first or pass a broad bill.

At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow said the administration is still pushing for a broad bill and he sees headway on administration insistence that Congress pass a broad bill that includes a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.

“I think there’s increasing awareness in both houses of Congress that that is the proper way to proceed,” Mr. Snow said.

But House Republicans remain adamant about border security first, said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

He said Mr. Hastert, who toured the border two weeks ago, is pleased with the assistance the Border Patrol is getting, “but a lot more needs to be done. The speaker believes we need a broad, strong border security bill first before we can do anything else.”

Mr. Sessions said he senses that senators are moving toward stricter enforcement because they have heard from constituents back home.

“The voice of the American people is beginning to be heard, and there’s been a sea-change in how people are thinking about some of these issues,” he said. “It’s become clearer and clearer that the fence does work, and it’s been clearer and clearer that the American people want us to put our money where our mouth was.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who voted against the amendment three weeks ago, praised yesterday’s vote, which came on an amendment to the defense appropriations bill. The Tennessee Republican called it a step toward fulfilling the commitment the Senate made in May but stressed that he remains committed to a broad immigration bill.

“Getting border security right, including building fences, is a key component to securing our homeland — which also helps open the door to comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.

Mr. Frist made no mention of the July vote, which was on an amendment to the homeland-security appropriations bill, but his spokeswoman said her boss feared what homeland-security programs might be cut under that earlier amendment.

Other top Republicans seconded that explanation as the reason they voted against the last amendment and for this one.

The new amendment took money from a $86.3 billion “contingency fund” the Senate included in its proposed 2007 budget, which the lawmakers said was a better source than funding the border fence with homeland security money.

The three senators who voted against yesterday’s fence amendment were Democrat Russ D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont.

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