The Senate, which has been the major obstacle to strict border-security legislation this year, will take up a bill this week that calls for constructing 700 more miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s time to secure the border with Mexico,” Majority Leader Bill Frist said last night before filing the parliamentary motions to force the House-passed bill onto the Senate floor in a final effort to get a major immigration bill on the president’s desk before the elections.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Minority Leader Harry Reid, said the move “smacks of desperation” and was a “clear repudiation of President Bush’s call for comprehensive legislation.”
The Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was easily approved by the House last week, contains none of the “comprehensive” measures that President Bush, Democrats and some Senate Republicans have demanded. Those include provisions to grant citizenship rights to about 10 million illegal aliens living in the country and a guest-worker program that would usher hundreds of thousands more foreign laborers into the U.S.
“Mr. Frist was for comprehensive reform before he was against it,” Mr. Manley said.
On the Senate floor last night, Mr. Frist said he still supports comprehensive immigration reform legislation. But, he said, because no consensus can now be reached on other issues, Congress should move ahead with border security. It’s not “enforcement only,” he said, but “enforcement first.”
“Border security is the essential first step of any effort to enact immigration reform,” Mr. Frist said. “Only when we have convinced the American people of our commitment to securing our borders will we be able to reach a consensus on comprehensive immigration reform.”
The last time the Senate considered a border-security-only bill, the measure failed, with all but two Democrats and 20 Republicans refusing even to debate it. Since then, several Republicans bent on comprehensive reform have told The Washington Times that they would now consider legislation that dealt only with stopping the flow of illegal aliens into the country.
Among the most adamant supporters of comprehensive reform have been Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who helped form a coalition earlier this year to derail any legislation that failed to grant broad citizenship rights to illegals and create a guest-worker program. The group of Republican defectors also included Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia.
Mr. McCain, Mr. Warner and Mr. Graham also have bolted party leadership by opposing Mr. Bush’s proposed legislation for handling the terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. The specter of a showdown this week over both the Guantanamo detainees and immigration had some Republican staffers on Capitol Hill wondering whether the trio could wage a two-front battle against their own party during an election season in which control of both chambers is in question.
By filing last night a cloture motion that will limit debate and let the Senate vote on the bill, Mr. Frist hopes to get the measure to the floor by week’s end. If Democrats stall, they could push the debate well into next week. And if, as is expected, Mr. Frist introduces the bill so that amendments cannot be offered, the battle in the Senate likely will take even longer and could end in yet another stalemate.
But the House’s approval of the bill suggests that Mr. Frist might see some converts on both sides of the aisle in favor of a bill that deals only with border security.
When the House last year approved its border-security legislation, it included almost exactly the same fencing provisions. The fence came to symbolize what many Democrats said was an unforgiving bill. They said the fence proved that Republicans harbored a hostility toward immigrants.
But last week, the stand-alone fence bill was approved 283-138, with support from more than 20 Democrats and a handful of Republicans who dropped opposition to the earlier fence proposal.
Still, most Democrats are adamantly opposed to the fence bill, calling it a new “Berlin Wall” and an election-year “gimmick” intended to portray them as weak on security measures. In addition, internal Republican polling has found that immigration is as powerful a motivator for voters as any issue with which Congress is grappling.
“They’re obviously done with legislating for the year,” Mr. Manley said. “Now, they’re just playing to their base.”
If approved by the Senate before month’s end, the bill would reach President Bush’s desk before the November elections.
In addition to building double-layered fences along 700 miles of the southern border, the Secure Fence Act also calls for changing Border Patrol policy to allow agents to forcibly disable fleeing vehicles along the border. The measure also would deploy cameras, ground sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the border.
“This border-security package, coupled with the increased appropriations for border security, will have a real impact on our homeland security and is a vital step forward toward fixing the problem of illegal immigration,” Majority Whip Mitch McConnell said yesterday.
“We’ve added thousands of new Border Patrol agents and nearly 10,000 new detention beds and hundreds of miles of fencing along the border. But this legislation will take us much closer to the operational control of our border that our homeland security requires and provide law enforcement with the tools they need to get the job done,” the Kentucky Republican said.