Thursday, March 1, 2007

Far from being secretive, the top senator drafting the major Senate immigration bill this year says he has invited a host of senators to help out and has kept the Bush administration in the loop the entire time, despite accusations to the contrary.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the immigration subcommittee, has held several meetings with lawmakers, including a recent one with top Republican and Democratic senators on the issue. He also talked with President Bush in January and last week spoke with White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten about the bill, Mr. Kennedy’s office says.

“I look forward to introducing a comprehensive immigration reform bill with Sen. John McCain and our House colleagues in the coming weeks and continuing to work with the bipartisan coalition behind the legislation that passed the Senate last year,” Mr. Kennedy said yesterday.

On Wednesday, Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, used the committee’s first immigration hearing of the year to publicly accuse Mr. Kennedy of leaving him and his staff out of the process.

“I have been concerned about reading what is happening behind the scenes in the newspapers,” Mr. Specter said. He called his comment a “word of caution” to Mr. Kennedy and said he needs to cooperate if he hopes to earn Republican support.

Democrats will need that Republican support to pass a bill in the Senate.

Mr. Kennedy is drafting a new measure with Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, and two House members: Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat.

Mr. Kennedy’s office says they are reaching out to the bipartisan coalition that helped pass a broad bill, 62-36, in the Senate last year. That bill offered a path to citizenship to most illegal aliens and created a new program for immigrant workers to come in the future.

House Republican leaders called it an amnesty and refused to consider it, instead forcing through a measure to build hundreds of miles of two-tier fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In drafting the new bill, Mr. Kennedy’s office said staffers are in regular contact with other offices, and have had three meetings with White House staff to go over bill details. In addition, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. McCain had a meeting Feb. 15 that included Mr. Specter and the Senate’s Hispanic members: Sens. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat and Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat.

Six other senators, all of whom supported last year’s bill, were invited but did not attend: Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican; Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent; Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and the chairman of the full Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Kennedy’s spokeswoman, Laura Capps, said the senators did discuss specific provisions at the recent meeting. She also said the sponsors plan to circulate a draft before they officially introduce a bill, but said the final version will be the work of the four chief sponsors.

Yesterday, though, Mr. Specter repeated his accusation.

“We have not been a party to the drafting of the bill. It’s surprising and disquieting,” he said. He also said he tried to work in a bipartisan way when he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee last year to try to get a bill done.

But one staffer involved in the negotiations said Mr. Specter had “zero consultation” last year before he, as chairman of the committee, drafted his own bill and dropped it on the committee.

“It’s completely hypocritical,” the staffer said.

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