When House Republicans blocked the intelligence overhaul bill two weeks ago, some congressional Republicans say they were showing President Bush he will split the party if he goes ahead with his broader immigration-reform plan.
“It would cause a break in the party that would be extremely unhealthy for the party,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus. “I can tell you right now, the feelings are deep. This is not a superficial argument with the president.
“We were all willing to shut up during the campaign. We were not going to attack the president. But the campaign is over with and the gloves are off on this issue,” Mr. Tancredo said.
He echoed the sentiments of several Republicans who emerged from a House Republican Conference discussion Nov. 20 on the intelligence bill, which they insist include strict national standards to ensure illegal aliens don’t acquire driver’s licenses.
Some Republicans say the intelligence bill impasse should be seen as the first round of a broader fight over the president’s proposed guest-worker program.
“I believe that if we capitulated on this issue right now, the second bite of the apple will be on immigration, but it won’t be on issues like tightening asylum to terrorist state members,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly, California Republican. “The next immigration issue we face will be an amnesty.”
The intelligence bill remains stalled as Senate negotiators said yesterday they will not consider changing the bill to add the immigration security provisions demanded by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, or the safeguards for military commanders to obtain real-time intelligence sought by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican.
“This is a referendum on immigration,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican. “If the people that are in support of border security get rolled by the president, that will be an indicator that the president’s amnesty plan has better momentum in Congress.
“I think that if they don’t accept the House version and they bring the conference report to a vote on the House floor, then there will be a split,” he said. “And I think it will be one that will take a long time to heal it back up.”
Not everyone thinks the Republican Party is divided on immigration.
“I don’t know that there’s a split,” said Ken Mehlman, who ran Mr. Bush’s campaign and likely will be the next chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“The president opposes amnesty and very clearly in the campaign was out against amnesty,” Mr. Mehlman recently told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. But when pressed, he added, “I think there are Republicans who have different opinions on immigration. There is no question.”
Mr. Bush already has made it clear he is moving forward with his guest-worker proposal to increase the number of legal permanent residents the nation allows and to create a renewable three-year guest-worker visa that would match foreign workers with employers who couldn’t find employees.
Though Republicans said they held their tongues on the issue during the presidential campaign, immigration did arise as an issue in Republican primaries for congressional offices. But it didn’t seem to secure any major victories.
Republican incumbents such as Rep. Christopher B. Cannon of Utah and Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, both of whom support guest-worker programs similar to the president’s, defeated those who ran against them on the issue.
“My opponent was a very coarse opportunist. We didn’t debate the possibilities or the president’s principles. He said amnesty over and over again,” Mr. Cannon said. “As soon as you get beyond that veneer that causes a reaction in a very small number of people, and talk about what the program should be, there are a lot of views out there. But they’re not divisive.
“While we have a bunch of people who happen to be Republicans who are the most outspoken, they are not a majority of the party,” he said, adding that he thinks there will be a strong consensus for the president’s guest-worker plan when the time comes for a vote.
He and Mr. Mehlman dispute the label of amnesty for the president’s plan.
“Amnesty says, ‘Illegal immigrants — we’re basically going to say, we’re going to wave a wand and you’re all legal.’ The president opposes that,” Mr. Mehlman said.
But he would not say whether Mr. Bush’s plan would have illegal aliens leave the country and wait for a period of time before applying for the guest-worker program, as the law currently says.
“I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts of the specific legislation. The president’s fundamental principles are that people who are illegally here should not be able to get in front of everybody else in line and become American citizens without having to wait, because that would be rewarding bad behavior.”
Mr. Gallegly, though, said Mr. Bush is going beyond amnesty by proposing to forgive existing immigration-law transgressions and allowing illegal immigrants to stay and work.
“If you reward them after you have forgiven them, that’s amnesty plus, and that’s my understanding of what the president is advocating,” Mr. Gallegly said.