Monday, March 19, 2007

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Republicans are trying to craft a “bipartisan solution” to illegal immigration — generating concern among party members who consider President Bush’s goal to be amnesty.

Mr. McConnell, echoing Mr. Bush’s optimism for overhauling immigration law to include citizenship opportunities for illegal aliens, said senators are trying to pull Republicans “together behind our proposal.”

“There’s a pretty broad desire to have an accomplishment, to do something, even among members who voted against final passage last year. There is still a lot of sentiment that a comprehensive bill would be the right thing to do,” said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Bush last week told foreign leaders he sees reasons for optimism and said that “the mood in the Congress seems like it has changed” in favor of completing a broad bill that includes a path to citizenship — the linchpin of an agreement he hopes to strike with congressional Democrats, who call it “earned legalization.”

He said his goal is to have Senate Republicans settle on a “coherent” position first, then approach Senate Democrats, particularly Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who likely will be the chief sponsor of the main Senate bill.

Mr. Kennedy said his bill will be based on the one the Senate passed last year when Republicans controlled Congress. That plan also provided for enhanced border security, a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.

House Republicans refused to vote on it, arguing that granting citizenship to illegals amounts to amnesty and a reward for law-breaking.

The House should be an easier sell for Mr. Bush this year, with Democrats now in control.

Some rank-and-file House Republicans worry their leaders will have a change of heart under pressure from the White House and support the Democrats.

“It is very disconcerting to me because I don’t know where the leadership is on this,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and outspoken critic of amnesty for illegal aliens.

“If the president is going to weigh in on this, I don’t know what [Majority Leader John A. Boehner] and the rest of my leadership are going to do,” Mr. Tancredo said. “We are going to be defense more than offense.”

The House Republican leaders say they remain opposed to granting citizenship rights.

“Leader Boehner opposes amnesty, led the charge against the Reid-Kennedy amnesty bill last year, and continues to oppose amnesty,” said his spokesman, Brian Kennedy, referring to Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, now the Senate majority leader. “There has been no change in his position.”

Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, also remains opposed to any immigration plan that doesn’t make border security a priority or that provides a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.

Numbers USA, a group advocating reduced levels of legal and illegal immigration, says the White House for weeks has been quietly telling member of Congress that it has “critical mass” of Republican support for the immigration plan in both chambers and leadership has “signed off on it.”

“I do not believe it is true,” said Rosemary Jenks, the group’s government-relations director. “I believe they want it to be true, and they are saying it is true in hopes of making it so.”

She said the noise the White House is making is a “good reminder that this is not what the public wants in any way.”

Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, California Republican and chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, is concerned about a repeat of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens but failed to stem the tide of illegal immigration.

“There is a lot of pressure from the White House,” said Kurt Bardella, Mr. Bilbray’s spokesman. “There is this anything-is-better-than-nothing attitude — whether or not it is good public policy.”

• Jerry Seper and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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