Thursday, May 25, 2006

Liberal House Republicans are taking an increasingly tough stance on immigration reform and are more determined than ever to delete the portions of the Senate bill that grant citizenship rights to more than 10 million illegal aliens.

“I don’t want to see a bill come to the floor of the House that gives them a path to citizenship,” said Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress.

This is a change from three weeks ago, before Mr. Shays attended 18 community meetings in his district, where the questions invariably turned to immigration. At the first meeting, he told a group of constituents that he supported providing a path to citizenship to illegals. Not anymore.

“There were real questions about that,” Mr. Shays said yesterday. “There is not much tolerance for allowing people to become citizens who came here illegally.”

It’s the same reaction many House Republicans in moderate and liberal districts have had after hearing from angry constituents in recent weeks, said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the former chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee who can cite encyclopedic knowledge of congressional districts off the top of his head.

“It is the hottest issue out there,” he said, referring to public reaction nationwide, including his own moderate district in Northern Virginia. “Everywhere I go, even the ethnic groups, everybody is talking about this.”

It was with much uneasiness, Mr. Davis said, that he voted for the House’s tough border-security bill last year. But since then, he said, he has been stunned by the overwhelming public support for the House approach to immigration reform.

Voters have no faith that the federal government will secure the borders and begin enforcing immigration laws, Mr. Davis said, and they are outraged over the Senate’s citizenship proposal.

“I have seen it out in my own district, which is a very wealthy, educated, thoughtful district,” Mr. Davis said. His constituents “are not knee-jerk people,” he said, but “have taken a look at this thing and are very, very tough on immigration right now. They want a tough bill.”

Polling, he said, shows “better than 2-to-1” support for the House bill over the Senate bill.

Rep. Peter T. King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and a co-author of the House border-enforcement bill, said House Republicans have only become more adamantly opposed to legalizing illegal aliens.

“I see a definite stiffening of spines,” the New York Republican said, adding that he doesn’t know of any House Republicans swayed by last week’s prime-time speech by President Bush favoring citizenship. “I haven’t seen anyone change their position.”

Mr. Shays said a turning point for many of his constituents was seeing TV and press coverage of massive rallies and parades to protest the House bill.

“They have very little tolerance for those marches that took place, the upside-down American flags and the Mexican flags,” he said. Also, they worried that immigrants’ resistance to learning English could create a splintered “Spanish Quebec” in the U.S.

Mr. Shays said he still supports a guest-worker plan that allows illegal aliens to work here temporarily. But, he said, illegals should return home and get at the very back of the line if they want to apply for citizenship.

Then, he said, the government must “really clamp down on employers” who hire illegals. “We have to start throwing the book at them.”

At a breakfast with reporters yesterday sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Davis said it is a common misperception in Washington — especially among the press — that only right-wingers are up in arms over illegal immigration.

“This is not just hard-right conservatives,” he said. “These are seniors, these are liberals. Everybody thinks the border ought to be enforced, the rule of law should be preserved.”

Politically speaking, Mr. Davis said Democrats should be “very, very careful” about getting too cozy with the illegal alien lobbyists if they want to make gains in the House or the Senate.

But, he said, the issue could be equally perilous in November for Republicans, who are already “on the ropes.” If a Republican Congress fails to pass immigration reform — without amnesty — the GOP will face harsh consequences.

“This will be a test for voters in terms of ‘Are Republicans capable of governing?’ ” said Mr. Davis.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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