Friday, March 24, 2006

Even as President Bush called for a “civil” debate on immigration yesterday, a confrontation was brewing on Capitol Hill with some Republicans saying Mr. Bush must stop demonizing them and Democrats vowing to fight the Senate majority leader’s bill.

“When we conduct this debate it must be done in a civil way,” Mr. Bush said after meeting with groups that support legalizing illegal aliens. “It must be done in a way that doesn’t pit one group of people against another.”

The president’s spokesman said Mr. Bush wasn’t singling out any group or person. But Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a top voice calling for better enforcement, said while he took Mr. Bush at his word, civility is a “two-way street” and the White House must stop attacking Republicans who disagree with it.

“If I had any advice for my friends at the White House, I think it would be to really reconsider posturing every disagreement as some sort of new political [or] psychological malady,” Mr. Hayworth said.

He pointed to when Republican leaders said conservative opponents to Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers were sexist, labeled opponents of the Dubai ports deal as Islamophobes and called members of the Minuteman Project that guarded the southern border “vigilantes.”

Meanwhile, the Senate debate is turning pointed, with Republicans warning Senate Democrats that they will pay a political price if they block efforts to pass immigration legislation this year.

“It’s discouraging that before the debate has even begun in the full Senate, the Democrat leadership is threatening to filibuster any legislation that doesn’t include amnesty,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican who has offered immigration legislation. “This is not the way to improve our national security and keep Americans safe.”

Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid stood near the U.S.-Mexico border and threatened to “use every procedural means at my disposal” — including a filibuster — to thwart the border security legislation Majority Leader Bill Frist plans to begin debating Monday.

Mr. Reid said he’s opposed to the bill because Mr. Frist is introducing it directly to the full Senate, bypassing the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“What we’re bringing to the floor is a border security bill to secure the borders and protect people,” Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said. “To suggest that he would filibuster such a measure only weakens our position at a time when we’re fighting a war on terror. It just fits into the Democrat strategy of delay and obstruct.”

Also this week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton promised to block any legislation that would make being in the U.S. illegally a felony, rather than the current civil offense. Such a move would be “mean-spirited,” she said, and not in keeping with Republicans’ professed belief in religious values.

“It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures, because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself,” she told a crowd in New York on Wednesday.

Mr. Frist’s Securing America’s Borders Act, which he introduced late last week, would criminalize illegals, fund hundreds more border agents and build limited fencing. Though the bill does not include a guest-worker program, Mr. Frist has said he expects one to eventually be included through amendments on the floor.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee will continue wrangling over guest-worker proposals but few Senate observers are optimistic that they will agree on one.

Mr. Bush has called for a bill that includes both enforcement and a guest-worker program, though he has said new workers would be temporary and current illegal aliens would not get “automatic citizenship.”

In his meeting with the lobby groups yesterday, Mr. Bush did not stake out a new position or clarify what “automatic citizenship” means, according to participants. But they said the president made it clear he will continue to highlight the issue and expects to play a major role when the House and Senate go to conference on immigration legislation.

After the meeting he made his plea for a measured debate.

“I urge members of Congress and I urge people who like to comment on this issue to make sure the rhetoric is in accord with our traditions,” he said.

Groups on both sides of the debate said they interpreted the remarks as aimed at those who want better enforcement and oppose a guest-worker plan.

“Sadly, if he’s talking to people who want to enforce immigration laws he’s talking to the majority of Americans,” said Rikki Horton, government relations associate at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Mr. Hayworth, at home while Congress is on recess, said what he sees at town-hall meetings in his Arizona district isn’t “anger directed at a person or an ethnic group,” but rather frustration at the federal government’s failure to control the border and enforce the law.

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