Saturday, June 16, 2007

President Bush yesterday told Hispanics to step into the middle of the immigration debate and make sure senators who have been bombarded with calls from opponents also hear from those who support the bill.

“There’s a lot of emotion on this issue, and it makes sense to have people from around the country come and sit down with members of Congress to talk rationally about the issue,” he told those attending the Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington yesterday.

He was speaking a day after the bill, which collapsed last week, was revived by the top Democrat and Republican in the Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, agreed to put the bill back on the Senate’s schedule next week, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, agreed to limit the number of amendments Republicans would offer.

But roadblocks are already popping up.

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said he will block any attempt to send the bill to an eventual House-Senate conference, complicating the usual path a bill takes to reach the president’s desk.

“Ted Kennedy has sold us another bill of goods and I don’t trust him to make even more changes to it behind closed doors in a conference with the House,” Mr. DeMint said, referring to the Massachusetts Democrat who has spearheaded the bill along with Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Senate aides said Mr. DeMint’s threat is many steps away, and they will address it when they come to it. But Democrats said it does underscore some Republicans’ repeated attempts to block the bill.

“Republicans like Senator DeMint have a very simple decision to make: Are they going to work with Democrats to strengthen border security and pass comprehensive immigration reform, or are they going to continue to obstruct and delay?” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid.

Yesterday, Mr. Reid said he will keep the Senate in session as long as needed to ensure the immigration bill and the energy bill, which is already on the Senate floor, are finished. He said he will keep senators here during their scheduled July Fourth vacation if need be.

Mr. Reid also said he will be the one to add $4.4 billion in guaranteed border security funding to the bill — stealing the thunder from Republican senators and Mr. Bush, who endorsed the idea Thursday as a way of winning the support of those who say the government can’t be trusted to follow through on enforcement.

“When the bill returns to the Senate floor, I plan to add $4.4 billion in guaranteed funding — to be funded by the fees and penalties established by the bill’s new programs — to strengthen border security and speed other important elements of comprehensive reform,” Mr. Reid said.

The bill is the result of a “grand bargain” struck by a small bipartisan group of senators and the Bush administration that offers illegal aliens a path to citizenship, creates a new program for future temporary foreign workers and creates a new point system for selecting future immigrants that would favor those with needed skills and education.

Both Democrats and Republicans have exchanged tentative lists of amendments that would be considered when the debate resumes. The list includes changes to the point system, additional guaranteed resources for border security and stiffer penalties for employers that break the law.

Among the potential deal-breaking amendments would be: Eliminating the path to citizenship for illegal aliens; changing the 2005 Real I.D. Act that imposed a standard for driver’s licenses; delaying legalization of illegal aliens until border security is completed; and requiring illegal aliens to show they have roots in the community to be eligible for the path to citizenship.

Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Kyl and others involved in the grand bargain have been successful in fending off most challenges to the bill, and leaders on both sides have said any deal-breaker amendments that pass can always be dumped in a House-Senate conference.

But that is exactly what worries conservatives such as Mr. DeMint, and prompted his pledge to block a conference.

The Bush administration is making a full-court press for the bill, rallying grass-roots and business group leaders at a meeting in the White House complex yesterday, while Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff visited a construction company in the District to watch a demonstration of what will become the employment-verification system.

He said the pilot program is working well, but has a flaw — it can’t weed out illegal aliens who are using real Social Security numbers stolen from someone else. He said the Senate bill changes that.

“Right now the law forbids us from getting into Social Security to determine whether we can verify in fact the genuine owner of the number and whether we’ve got two people using the same number at the same time,” he said. “The only way to get that is for Congress to pass this bill.”

In his remarks at the prayer breakfast yesterday, Mr. Bush made a pitch for passing a bill that addresses many parts of the immigration issue: better enforcement, a temporary worker program, legalization for illegal aliens and assimilation for new immigrants.

“That’s what has always made our nation strong. People in America must have confidence in this country to help people assimilate,” he said.

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