The Next Congress
Fourth of five parts
Immigration is the one major issue on which President Bush is likely to fare better next year if Democrats win control of Congress.
The issue is unfinished business to which all sides promise to return, after House Republicans this year prevented Mr. Bush from winning both a guest-worker program and citizenship rights for most illegal aliens.
Instead, House Republican leaders forced through a bill to construct 698 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Funding for the fencing and other border security measures will be the first test of the new Congress on immigration policy.
Democrats have an outside chance of taking complete control of Capitol Hill, but a better chance of winning one chamber, and in this series, The Washington Times is examining how such a transfer of power will affect U.S. policy and politics.
Neither House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, likely to be the speaker of the House if Democrats win that chamber, nor Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrats’ Senate leader, would commit this week to funding the fencing if they gain control of Congress.
“What Leader Pelosi has said in the past is that we need to do comprehensive reform, and the fence could be part of that reform,” said the California Democrat’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Crider.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Mr. Reid, said the Nevada Democrat is working toward “solutions that are tough and smart, not political legislation designed to make for good election-year sound bites.”
Republicans are questioning the Democrats’ commitment. Last week, on the day Mr. Bush signed the fencing into law, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert issued a statement asking, “Would a Democrat majority support construction of a border fence?”
But Mr. Hastert won’t commit to spending for the entire fence, instead focusing on “operational control” that could include less fencing but other measures, such as more Border Patrol agents and vehicle barriers.
“He’ll commit to funding necessary to get operational control of the border, which goes far beyond a single line of fencing,” said Lisa C. Miller, spokeswoman for the Illinois Republican.
For his part, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican likely to lead his party in the Senate with the retirement of Majority Leader Bill Frist, wants to see the funding through, his spokesman said.
“He sees border security as critical to our national and homeland security and believes the Congress should fund border security, including the border fence,” spokesman Don Stewart said.
Spending aside, Congress still faces the four major immigration questions that it punted on this year — how to secure the border, how to boost workplace enforcement, whether to create a new program for future foreign workers in addition to the existing work programs that hundreds of thousands of people already use; and what to do about the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens now in the country.
Mr. Bush, joined by almost all Democrats and some Republicans, wants action on all of those issues, and the Senate passed such a bill this year.
But House Republicans insist that the government must prove it can control the borders and enforce the laws before considering a new worker program, and many Republicans oppose legalization of illegal aliens altogether, arguing that it is amnesty for lawbreakers.
If Republicans retain control of Congress, that impasse is likely to remain, said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports a path to citizenship.
“It has stalemate written all over it — stalemate plus [passage of] appropriations, which I don’t think would satisfy either group of partisans,” he said.
But if Democrats win the 15 seats they need to snatch control of the House, the odds for a deal improve somewhat.
“If the House stays Republican, chances of a comprehensive bill being enacted in the next Congress are less than 10 percent. And if the House is taken by the Democrats, chances of a comprehensive bill passing in the next Congress are about 50-50,” Mr. Sharry said.
He figures there are probably 160 to 175 House Democrats willing to vote for comprehensive reform, meaning between 45 and 60 Republicans would have to join them to reach a comfortable margin for passage.
Less depends on which party controls the Senate, because a bipartisan consensus appears to exist for some sort of broad bill. Still, the Senate could improve prospects for a final compromise bill if it acts first, putting pressure on the House to follow through.
That would be different from this year, when the Senate Judiciary Committee got bogged down on judicial nominations, renewal of the USA Patriot Act and detainee treatment, allowing the House to drive the enforcement-first side.
Much also will depend on the personalities in the debate.
The biggest change would be the difference between Mr. Hastert and Mrs. Pelosi. While the Republican has focused squarely on enforcement, boosted by voters in his district who have driven that message home to him, the Democrat has supported legalization.
She has opposed many of the security-only provisions Republicans have put forth, calling some “awful” and others “OK.” But she said in September that “all of them are more acceptable in the context of comprehensive immigration reform.”
If the Republicans maintain control in the House, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee probably would be Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texan who is a strong advocate for enforcement and has argued that a guest-worker program hurts American workers. However, Rep. John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat in line to become chairman if his party wins control, supports a broad legalization.
How much of a priority the issue is for Democrats remains to be seen. Although leaders say they want to find a solution, it has not played a major role as Democrats campaigned this year.
When House Democrats issued a 25-page position paper on their priorities for next year, immigration reform was not among them.
And in “The Plan,” a manifesto-type book by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel and Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed, immigration rated one brief mention — an attack on Republicans for using the issue for political gain.
But the opportunity to outspend Mr. Bush on homeland security might end up enticing Democrats to push for their own political gain on the issue, said Rikki Horton, government relations associate for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes amnesty and calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration.
“Since the president doesn’t fully fund some of these in his budget, I actually believe the Democrats would want to go against the president,” she said. “I don’t believe that everything will be fully funded but I do believe, in a scenario where the Democrats take over, I can see them wanting to use this to put the president in a bad light.”
That happened two years ago, when just months after promising to increase the U.S. Border Patrol by 2,000 agents a year for five years, Mr. Bush’s first budget included just 210 agents. Lawmakers from both parties used that move to criticize the White House and insist on bigger increases.
One of those lawmakers, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, would have the chance to play a major role again should Democrats take control of the Senate.
He is in line to recapture the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and although he is not talking about specifics should Democrats win control, his record is clear.
“If we are truly serious about securing our borders — and not just engaging in rhetoric and hot air — then we will put real dollars where the rubber hits the road,” he said earlier this year.
His spokesman, Tom Gavin, said Mr. Byrd supports the homeland security spending bill the president signed into law last month that included $1.2 billion for fencing, vehicle barriers, sensors, cameras and other infrastructure, and gives the Department of Homeland Security flexibility to decide what to spend where.
“Senator Byrd is supportive of that funding and the secretary’s authority. No matter which party is in power, Senator Byrd will continue to work to make the improvements to border security that are critical to the safety of the United States,” Mr. Gavin said.
The major decisions for the appropriations committees will be how much to increase the Border Patrol and to determine how many workplace enforcement teams and additional detention beds are needed.
Chances for an immigration agreement also will become entwined with presidential personalities and politics.
The Hispanic vote might play a much larger role in the presidential election than it has in House races this year, which could influence the way both parties handle it.
And Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a major backer of legalization, is a presidential contender on the Republican side, though other Republican candidates are likely to emerge taking a much stricter line on the issue. Just this week Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who was the champion of the 700 miles of fencing, announced that he is exploring a run for president.
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