Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The security of the border should be the No. 1 priority for an immigration bill, Sen. Arlen Specter said yesterday, and he’s open to a compromise that sets goals for border and interior enforcement ahead of a guest-worker program and path to citizenship for illegal aliens.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said that in order for Congress to produce an immigration bill this year, President Bush must lobby personally on specific details in the bill — something he has not done.

“The president’s got to be there. He’s got to get involved, in my opinion, in the negotiations. Now, he has not yet been willing to do that,” the Pennsylvania Republican told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

He said Mr. Bush has participated only at the level of “generalization” and is going to have to do far more to convince lawmakers “that the border’s going to be secure, that employer verification’s going to happen. That’s the crunch time.”

Mr. Specter would be chairman of the conference when the House and Senate meet to hammer out the differences between their bills.

The House focused on building 700 miles of fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, boosting enforcement and requiring employers to verify that their workers are here legally. The Senate bill boosts enforcement but focuses on creating a program for future immigrant workers and a path to citizenship for many current illegal aliens.

House Republican leaders announced last week that they will hold hearings across the country to examine the Senate bill, and Mr. Specter responded by proposing hearings of his own.

“Are we out of touch with the American people? We may be, on the basis of what the American people know today,” he said, adding that the broken borders and poor interior enforcement get most of the attention. But he said he’s having hearings, beginning July 5 in Pennsylvania, to look at the need for a guest-worker program and to examine how to deal with current illegal aliens.

Mr. Specter said that although the Senate would insist on a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for many illegal aliens in the final compromise bill, he is open to legislation that would make those proposals contingent on having a secure border and improved interior enforcement.

“It may be down the line that we will come to some terms on a timetable, with border security first and employment verification first,” he said.

Such an amendment was offered during the Senate floor debate, but failed by a vote of 55-40, with Mr. Specter joining most Democrats and some Republicans in defeating it. Yesterday, Mr. Specter said he understands the sentiment of those who want enforcement first.

“That’s got to be in place firmly. But I don’t think the Senate will pass a bill that’s limited to that,” he said, adding that those decisions about a timetable will “come in very hardfisted negotiations at the end of the rainbow.”

The chairman said he is open to novel approaches to reducing illegal immigration, including a suggestion by Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, Pa., who says landlords should have to verify that their tenants are in the country legally, just as employers are supposed to verify that their workers are legal.

“I’m looking for something that’s pragmatic — that has a chance of working and that will get the votes. And at the end it’s a question of whether the bill we come up with is better than no bill, or worse than no bill. And if it’s worse than no bill, I’ll say so,” Mr. Specter said.

He said his bill gives state and local police jurisdiction to detain illegal aliens, saying his experience as a prosecutor with bail violators showed that local authorities are in the best position to catch fugitives during other activities such as traffic stops and said he would be open to a bail-bondsman-type of system for illegal aliens who ignore deportation orders.

“It would be all right with me,” he said.

Mr. Specter also said he has spoken with Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, whose immigration proposal includes a guest-worker program, and has asked his staff to look at Mr. Pence’s plan.

The Senate bill rests on an agreement to let longtime illegal aliens remain in the U.S. if they can prove generally good behavior during their time here, and Mr. Specter said much of that will be up to the immigration officer who hears the case.

He said that officer will have to decide whether the alien made a “good-faith” effort to pay taxes, even if it meant violations of the law such as using fraudulent documents.

Although immigration has dominated his duties as chairman of the Judiciary Committee in recent months, Mr. Specter said his chief job is still to confirm Mr. Bush’s judges, and he said it was a strong accomplishment to confirm both Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in the past year.

He listed a few pending fights over judges but said the onus is on the administration, which “has a lot of vacancies which they haven’t filled.” He said he’s been expecting a list of nominees to fill many of those vacancies, but it hasn’t materialized.

“Not only am I expecting it, I’ve been expecting it for about six weeks,” he said.

“There is an issue here as to how long we’re going to be able to confirm judges. You know the Democrats are salivating to take over the Senate, and if they think they can take over the Senate, it would be a very different confirmation process if Leahy is the chairman,” he said. “So we need them yesterday.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont is the ranking Democrat on the committee.

He also said a “showdown” is looming between the Senate and the American Bar Association over another pending nominee, Michael B. Wallace, who has been named to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Even though Mr. Wallace “has a good record,” Mr. Specter said, the bar association has unanimously rated him “not qualified” and has not told the chairman why.

“We’re not going to take their conclusions. If they want to have any standing, they’ve got to tell us reasons,” Mr. Specter said. “It’s not enough that the ABA says a nominee is not qualified. That’s up to the Senate to decide.”

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