Thursday, May 24, 2007

The bipartisan immigration bill being pushed by the White House and Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, is fracturing rather than “saving” the Republican Party nationally, according to angry party leaders and new poll findings.

Arizona Republican Party officials have received “hundreds and hundreds of calls, e-mails and letters from Republicans angry about the bill,” state party Chairman Randy Pullen told The Washington Times.

“They were saying, ‘I am going to register independent and not give you any more money’ — and that’s the base of our party saying that,” Mr. Pullen said.

Republican officials also criticized Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, as being out of touch for his weekend remark on CNN that the immigration bill “could be the saving of the Republican Party.”

Chuck Laudner, the Iowa Republican Party executive director, told The Times that Mr. Martinez is “dead wrong because the bill doesn’t save the Republican Party — it drives a wedge right through it.”

“I don’t think the immigration bill is going to save the Republican party,” Cindy Costa, the Republican national committeewoman from South Carolina, told The Times. “If you undermine your base as this bill does, I don’t hardly see how that can save the GOP.”

Mr. Martinez was handpicked by the White House to be general chairman of the Republican Party because he agreed with the Bush administration’s goal of reaching out to the nation’s growing Hispanic electorate.

“I like Mel, he is a great guy, but his political instincts aren’t real good — my Florida friends tell me they’re calling him ‘Amnesty Mel’ down there,” Mr. Pullen said.

The measure, whose chief sponsor is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, would provide illegal aliens a way to gain legal status and eventually citizenship. It is “a Democratic bill,” Mr. Pullen said.

“The White House and Jon Kyl are giving Democrats exactly what they need — cover,” the Arizona official said. “Democrats aren’t going to be out there alone, giving amnesty to 20 million illegal aliens.

Mr. Pullen also criticized Arizona Sen. John McCain, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, for his sponsorship last year of a measure that would have enabled illegals to gain citizenship.

“McCain’s position last year was the reverse of what it should have been,” Mr. Pullen said.

Mr. Kyl said he’s committed to the bipartisan deal in the Senate, and that his only fear now is that Democrats will pull the bill too far to the left for him to support it.

“I have already taken the political hit,” Mr. Kyl said. “I have already made my decision to support this legislation, and I will support it to the end if it is not substantially modified. My commitment is firm, and I don’t want the situation to occur where I have to pull my support.”

The divisive effect of the bill is illustrated by a Rasmussen poll released yesterday that found that 26 percent of respondents favor the Senate immigration plan. Opposing the bill were 47 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of Democrats and 46 percent who belong to neither party.

“These survey results are consistent with other recent polling data showing that most Americans favor an enforcement only bill,” said Scott Rasmussen in an analysis accompanying the poll of 800 likely voters. “Support drops when a ‘path to citizenship’ is added to the mix,” as in the current Senate measure.

“President Bush’s job approval ratings dip every time comprehensive immigration tops the news,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

Conservatives warned that the Republican lawmakers who support the Senate bill can expect retribution at the ballot box.

“This immigration issue should be of serious concern to all members of Congress with an interest in being re-elected,” said Curly Haugland, a North Dakota rancher and Republican national committeeman. “So far, the only member of Congress that has expressed an opinion on the matter that I agree with is that of House Minority Leader John Boehner, who called the bill ‘a piece of [expletive].’ ”

After asserting Sunday on CNN that the immigration bill would be the “saving of the Republican Party,” Mr. Martinez suggested that it would be politically popular “once people have an opportunity to understand what’s in this bill.”

Mr. Laudner called Mr. Martinez’s assertion “nonsense” and said the Iowa state party has “had nothing but angry phone calls streaming into our office since it was announced last week that [Senate leaders] had cut this deal on a bill — not one happy caller.”

In President Bush’s home state of Texas, “people are offended by what they see as an amnesty provision,” said Bill Crocker, the state’s Republican national committeeman. “What they want before anything else is border security.”

White House political adviser Karl Rove has emphasized outreach to the growing U.S. Hispanic population as key to the future of the Republican Party. Mr. Martinez, who was a teenager when he escaped Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba, told CNN that “I well understand, in my own skin, what it’s like to immigrate to America,” and said Mr. Bush has provided “crucial” leadership on the immigration bill.

“I think he’s got a great phrase, where he’s saying that, ‘without amnesty or animosity,’ ” Mr. Martinez said on CNN, “and it’s very important that, as this debate unfolds, we keep that in mind, that we keep the animosity out of it and try to do something that’s good for the country.”

c Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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