Thursday, February 22, 2007

Senators and lobbyists are putting the final touches on a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that includes an easier citizenship path for illegal aliens and weaker enforcement provisions than were in the highly criticized legislation that the Senate approved last year.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who ardently supports citizenship rights for illegals, will introduce the bill as early as next week, according to Senate sources knowledgeable about the negotiations. If the Senate Judiciary Committee can make quick work of the bill, it could be ready for floor action in April.

Mr. Kennedy drafted this year’s bill with help from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and outside lobbyists. Mr. McCain and the outside groups share Mr. Kennedy’s support for increased immigration and leniency for illegals already in the country.

Among the most active participants have been the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Both groups support giving current illegals a path to citizenship and increasing the flow of foreign workers into the country.

“It’s good for the country,” EWIC immigration lawyer Laura Reiff said of Mr. Kennedy’s bill.

In particular, EWIC and the chamber have taken a leading role in drafting the section of the bill dealing with work-site enforcement, Senate staffers say. Lobbyists in both organizations have shuttled around Capitol Hill drafts of those provisions, which are supposed to impose sanctions on businesses that hire illegal aliens, according to internal e-mails obtained by The Washington Times.

“That’s putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” one Senate lawyer said about the pro-business chamber’s involvement in drafting the punishment of employers.

One of those e-mails obtained by The Times invited Democratic immigration staffers to a briefing in early January with “key stakeholders” to discuss workplace-enforcement provisions. The invitation listed six such “stakeholders,” including the chamber and EWIC. The other groups attending the meeting, according to the e-mail, were the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center, the National Council of La Raza and the Service Employees International Union.

Not included in that meeting or any of the early meetings, according to several Senate aides, were key Republican senators or their staff who crossed the aisle last year to support “comprehensive” immigration reform that most Republicans considered a form of amnesty.

“We have been held out of any discussions,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, one of those who supported last year’s major immigration bill. “Our staffs have asked to be involved, but they were kept out.”

Even Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee last year ushered the immigration bill through the Senate, has been left out of the process of drafting the bill.

Mr. Specter said yesterday that he and Mr. Kennedy have discussed the need to get a bill done this year but not any details. Mr. Specter has twice complained to Mr. Kennedy, most recently at a meeting last week, that the Republican senator’s staff had been left out of negotiations.

“I raised the issue again, and a Kennedy staffer said there was nothing in writing” as legislation, he said. “Neither my staff nor I have seen any draft.”

Last week, aides and Republicans said, Mr. Specter, Mr. Brownback and others were invited to a meeting where they got their first briefing on the nearly completed bill. Other Republicans invited included Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida.

Laura Capps, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kennedy, said he has been working with “many senators and members of Congress to draft the new bill.”

“The bipartisan coalition behind the bill remains strong and intact.”

The one Republican who all agree has been part of the negotiations from the start is Mr. McCain, who is running for his party’s presidential nomination. This worries Republicans who say that Mr. McCain is the last Republican they want representing their interests in negotiations with Mr. Kennedy over immigration legislation.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Kennedy have long embraced the same goal of giving illegal aliens a direct path to U.S. citizenship despite having broken laws to get here in the first place. Both men also denounce the view held by most Republicans that the federal government should first secure the border with Mexico and begin enforcing current laws before addressing other immigration issues such as what to do with the more than 10 million to 12 million aliens already here.

Who has been in and out of negotiations this year signals to Republicans that Mr. Kennedy will introduce a bill that more resembles the original McCain-Kennedy bill than the compromise that was ultimately approved last year.

As much as conservatives dislike last year’s compromise bill, they consider it some improvement over the original bill because it lowered the number of new foreign workers permitted into the country each year and slightly narrowed the pool of illegals who would be granted “amnesty.”

“If it’s back to the old version without the changes we made last year, I don’t think I could support that,” Mr. Brownback said.

Ms. Capps said she expects Mr. Kennedy to introduce his bill “in the next few weeks.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is “committed to getting something done this year,” his spokesman said.

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