- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Readers react

The Senate voted yesterday to begin debate on an immigration-reform bill, turning aside objections from senators who said the legislation is being rushed and acting even as Senate offices were being flooded with calls and faxes urging the deal be blocked.

Immediately after the 69-23 vote to proceed to the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will extend the debate an extra week — a concession to Republicans, but also an indication that he is committed to producing a bill this year rather than forcing a stalemate.

“If we put rhetoric aside, we have the opportunity to pass a law that treats people fairly and strengthens our economy,” he said, even as he acknowledged that he has doubts about parts of the bill, which most senators saw for the first time yesterday.

The Bush administration and a group of senators had been meeting in private for months to write the bill and announced the deal Thursday, drawing an immediate flood of calls, faxes and e-mails telling lawmakers to scuttle the agreement.

It wasn’t long before those calls bore fruit.

“Already by Friday afternoon, we had some of the Republican offices calling us and saying: ‘Would you tell your members we’re definitely going to vote no, and will you call off the phone calls?’ ” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which has deemed the bill an amnesty for illegal aliens and whose members already have sent 185,000 faxes to Senate offices.

Groups on both sides of the issue are unhappy with the bill. Some are demanding that the legislation be killed, while others are urging lawmakers to try to fix it on the Senate floor.

One of the first amendments, from Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, will cut the proposed guest-worker program in half from 400,000 new workers, Mr. Reid said.

That vote, which could take place today, will be the first test of the fragile coalition backing the bill.

A Senate Democratic aide said yesterday that the dozen or so Republicans and Democrats who drafted the compromise will meet every day to decide which amendments to support or oppose, all with an eye toward preserving the core of the bill.

“There’s a commitment to make those decisions jointly,” the aide said on the condition of anonymity. The aide said the group is committed to “stick together to preserve that grand bargain.”

For now, most calls to Senate offices are coming from those who say the bill rewards illegal aliens with amnesty.

Senators are already defending themselves against the charge.

“My telephone is ringing, and most people want to know: ‘Did you secure the border?’ or they tell you: ‘You did not secure the border,’ ” Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, said on the Senate floor yesterday. “You’ve got to set them straight.”

He urged his colleagues to carry around the exact details of the border-security provisions in the bill to read to voters.

Brenda Muniz, legislative director for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which argues the bill is too harsh to immigrants, said the group is using its most active local chapters to encourage Republicans and Democrats to support a broad bill.

She also said the group is using its toll-free number to try to generate calls to offices, all with the message that senators should support moving the process forward but should urge some key changes — including rolling back some of the restrictions on bringing families to the U.S.

But she said that if the bill doesn’t get changed, the group is ready to tell senators to vote against it, rather than accept a bad bill.

Clarissa Martinez, campaign manager for the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, said her group is walking a fine line in planned radio ads and in the message its member groups are conveying.

“At the end of the day, I think there’s two messages” — support a broad legalization bill, but make sure it doesn’t give up key immigrant rights, she said.

She compared the calls senators are getting to a primary election, saying they are hearing from the extremes on both sides of the issue. She said her group is trying to tap into the middle — “that other 75 percent of the population who agree comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship is a solution” — so Congress hears from them.

One of those on the defensive is Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, who was part of the closed-door negotiations. On Friday, newspapers in Georgia ran a photo of the senator laughing along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and the party’s top negotiator, at the announcement press conference.

When callers asked about the duo teaming up, Mr. Beck said, Mr. Chambliss’ staffers told them that Mr. Chambliss was actually off to the side and that the camera angle is misleading in making it look as if the two men were together.

Lindsay Mabry, a spokeswoman for Mr. Chambliss, said the senator’s office had a high volume of calls and that most of them are complaints the bill is amnesty.

“What we’re telling them is, it’s absolutely not an amnesty bill,” she said. “The definition of amnesty is forgiveness without punishment. This bill contains no new automatic path to citizenship.”

As for the Kennedy photo, she said the office has received a handful of calls about it.

“What we’ve tried to explain to people is, ‘Look, a photo is a photo,’ ” she said. “This was a meeting of the minds, a bipartisan group of senators who agree on certain things, disagree on certain things, but the important thing in government is to get people on both sides of the aisle talking about an issue.”

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