President Bush yesterday said he will team up with Democrats to pass an immigration bill with a guest-worker program that his own party blocked this year, and his Republican opponents predicted a bloody intraparty fight but said they cannot stop such a bill from passing.
“We will fight it, we will lose. It will go to the Senate, it will pass. The president will sign it. And it will happen quickly because that’s one thing they know they can pass,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, who had led the opposition to a guest-worker plan. “I am absolutely horrified by this prospect, but I have to face reality.”
Mr. Bush supported a bipartisan majority in the Senate this year that passed a broad immigration bill including a new worker program and citizenship rights for millions of illegal aliens. But House Republicans blocked those efforts, calling them an amnesty, and instead forced through a bill to erect nearly 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tuesday’s elections removed that obstacle by turning control of the House over to Democrats.
Yesterday, in an afternoon press conference, the president said he shares Democrats’ vision on immigration and will try again for a broad bill.
“There’s an issue where I believe we can find some common ground with the Democrats,” he said.
According to Reuters news agency, a spokesman for Mexican President Vicente Fox cheered Democrats’ success, saying it improves chances for getting a bill done.
And Democrats said the issue’s time has come.
“With alignment now in Congress and the White House, this is a unique opportunity,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee and a leader on the issue.
He said there are a number of House Republicans who thought their enforcement approach was bad policy but good politics. He said that belief was shattered by Tuesday’s elections with the loss of two Republicans in Arizona — Randy Graf, a candidate for a seat near Tucson, and Rep. J.D. Hayworth, an incumbent from Scottsdale — who both ran heavily on opposition to a guest-worker program.
Other losses included Rep. John Hostettler, the Indiana Republican who was chairman of the immigration subcommittee, and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who ran heavily on border security, hoping the issue could save him.
Republicans who backed Mr. Bush on the issue said the results are clear.
“Over the last two years, people who have been in my position on immigration have done well, and people who have been more extreme have done badly,” said Rep. Chris Cannon, a Utah Republican who backs a guest-worker plan.
He said Republicans goofed by not passing a bill, because they will now be forced to accept Democratic legislation far closer to amnesty.
“If we’d done this as Republicans, we wouldn’t even have the argument of pathway to citizenship,” he said.
Mr. Cannon said Democrats will now get credit for solving the problem, and said Mr. Tancredo will be left with “a soapbox to pound the living daylights out of people who are scared of America changing.”
There are still some big hurdles to a bill passing.
While Mr. Bush and most Democrats agree that many illegal aliens should have a regular legal status, a key sticking point is whether future workers will also have a chance at citizenship. The Senate bill allowed citizenship rights for those workers, but Mr. Bush has consistently rejected that.
Immigration also could get bogged down in 2008 presidential politics.
Mr. Cannon said he worries Democrats are trying to use the issue to bait Mr. Tancredo into a third-party candidacy to split Republican votes.
“I think the goal of the Democrats is not going to be good legislation, I think it’s going to be empowering a third-party candidate,” he said.
Mr. Tancredo has been considering a run for the Republican nomination in 2008, and said yesterday he has not made a decision. But he said pundits will take the wrong lesson from his party’s election-night losses.
“The results of this election, although they did not occur as a result of the immigration issue, will negatively affect our cause more than anybody ever anticipated,” he said.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who wants a crackdown on illegal immigration and opposes a guest-worker plan, said Republicans didn’t lose because of immigration but in spite of it.
He said Mr. Santorum came late to the issue and “it looked like it was a political position for him rather than a conviction.” As for Mr. Graf, he had to fight both Democrats and Republicans, who poured money into the race trying to defeat him in the primary.
“We know where the polls are; we saw the Democrats run on border security,” Mr. King said.
He vowed to redouble his efforts to fight a guest-worker bill, but said he also sees Mr. Bush signing whatever Congress sends over: “It’ll be hard for him to resist a bill that will be put on his desk by a new Democratic majority.”