Wednesday, April 26, 2006

President Bush and a group of senators yesterday reached general agreement on an immigration bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for many illegal aliens.

But left out of the closed-door White House meeting were senators who oppose a path to citizenship. The meeting even snubbed two men who had been considered allies of Mr. Bush on immigration — Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the immigration subcommittee, and Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Bush in brief remarks to the press said there was agreement to get “a bill that does not grant automatic amnesty to people, but a bill that says, somebody who is working here on a legal basis has the right to get in line to become a citizen.” But senators, speaking afterward, said Mr. Bush was far more specific in the meeting.

“There was a pretty good consensus that what we have put into the Hagel-Martinez proposal here is the right way to go,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican. “I think he was very clear [on] pathway to citizenship, so long as it goes to the back of the line, and he even opened the door here for something we’ve haggled back and forth on, that you can shrink the time for people to become citizens by simply enlarging the number of green cards.”

And Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said Mr. Bush “endorsed the concept of an earned citizenship.”

That would represent a substantial change on the part of the Bush administration, which just last year said it opposed a path to citizenship for those currently here illegally.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate Judiciary Committee in October the administration didn’t support “a path through which they can get their permanent residence or citizenship,” and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao echoed that: “We feel that a pathway to citizenship would reward those who have violated our laws.”

The Hagel-Martinez bill would divide illegal aliens into three groups. Most of those who have been in the country for more than five years would be granted access to citizenship, those here more than two years but less than five years would have to go home first but would also be eligible for citizenship, while those here two years or less would not have a path.

Even as Mr. Bush is moving in that direction, the House majority leader yesterday rejected it.

“This idea that was being kicked around the Senate about providing some sort of amnesty for those who have been here five years or more, I just think it was a very big mistake,” House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said yesterday. “You are just inviting more people to come.”

Still, the senators in yesterday’s meeting were thrilled with where the debate is, and the direction Mr. Bush is headed.

“He hasn’t endorsed the Senate bill, but I think it’s a big step forward in that direction and gives assurances that if we pass legislation of that sort, that we’ll have support from the president when we get into conference,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

“I’m not in the habit of patting the president on the back and sending him accolades, but I have to say that this meeting that we just had, I have to pat the president on the back,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “This was really, I thought, a good, good meeting.”

Mr. Cornyn, the immigration subcommittee chairman who was not invited to the meeting, said through a spokesman he didn’t see a need to be there.

“Senator Cornyn has been consistent and transparent on where he stands, and on his call for comprehensive reform without amnesty,” said Mr. Cornyn’s spokesman, Don Stewart. “The president didn’t need to convince Senator Cornyn to stop playing politics and blocking votes — he can save that message for the minority leader.”

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the invitees were senators who are leading the fight for a comprehensive bill.

“These are people who have been very involved in this issue, and people that I think are committed to finding a way forward to get comprehensive reform done and moving beyond the procedural tactics that have held this agreement from going forward,” he said.

The meeting included Mr. Reid, whom Mr. McClellan a day earlier had accused of being the sole obstacle to a bill. “It’s Senator Reid’s procedural gimmicks that stopped it from moving forward before the recess,” Mr. McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday.

Also in yesterday’s meeting were Republican Sens. Bill Frist, Lindsey Graham, Judd Gregg, Chuck Hagel, John McCain and Mitch McConnell, and Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin, Edward M. Kennedy, Patrick J. Leahy, Joe Lieberman, Robert Menendez, Barack Obama and Ken Salazar.

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