Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, trying to win support to pass his proposal to give legal status to illegal aliens who go to college or join the military, said yesterday he has dropped from his plan a mandate for in-state tuition rates and is promising to impose an age limit to cut the number of people who would be eligible.

“If we can make these changes and win votes by doing so, then I’m prepared to,” said Mr. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and Senate majority whip. “I think the ultimate goal is to give these young people a chance to show by their lives that they are deserving of status.”

Known as the Dream Act, the proposal is the first major immigration fight since President Bush’s comprehensive bill failed to pass the Senate earlier this year, but Republicans said he would doom the proposal if, as planned, Mr. Durbin tries to attach his proposal to the defense bill, which is on the Senate floor now.

“It won’t survive cloture,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, referring to the 60-vote threshold needed to pass contentious measures in the Senate.

Mr. Durbin wants students who were brought here before age 16, have been in the country at least five years, have graduated from high school and have completed two years of military service or college to have a path to citizenship.

He said he knows his proposal will have to meet the 60-vote threshold but said he still wants to try to find time for the debate on the defense bill. He has been telling senators to expect this fight since July, when the defense bill was first brought to the Senate floor.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Mr. Durbin read testimony from several military leaders who saw the pool of illegal-alien students as untapped and worthy.

It’s not clear how many of those eligible under the bill would sign up for military service, but Mr. Durbin said for those that do, “it is only fair that they be given the reward of legal status after that.”

He has agreed to impose an age ceiling of 30 to limit the pool of eligibility, answering critics who said it was too open, and he is considering changes to confidentiality rules governing applications.

“What I tried to do was get back to the moment I introduced the bill, because frankly, there were many young people that inspired me to do this, and I would hate to leave them behind,” he said.

The president’s immigration bill fell 14 votes shy of the 60-vote threshold earlier this year, and while Mr. Durbin may pick up some Democrats who opposed that broader bill, he has lost some Republicans who object to the fight coming on the defense bill.

“I would be opposed to it and will work against it,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was one of the most vocal Republican champions of the president’s immigration bill, was noncommittal yesterday.

“I support the Dream Act, but I’ll just have to see how it affects this policy,” he said.

A version of the Dream Act passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 16-3 in 2003, with Mr. Cornyn and most of the committee’s other Republicans voting for it.

Mr. Cornyn said he’s sympathetic to the plight of children “who have no moral culpability” for being here illegally, but said Mr. Durbin’s bill goes far beyond that to become a “Trojan horse to try to find a path to citizenship” for a broader group of people. He also said the defense bill is the wrong place for that debate.

Groups that were instrumental in rallying opposition to Mr. Bush’s bill are ramping up their efforts again. Numbers USA, which wants a crackdown on illegals and stricter limits on legal immigration, is running a list on its Web site of senators and how they have committed to vote.

On the other side, the Dream Act has become a major rallying point for immigrant-advocacy groups who were dismayed by losing the immigration fight earlier this year. After that bill collapsed under the weight of difficult negotiations, they are likely to watch Mr. Durbin’s changes closely.

Raul Gonzalez, legislative director at the National Council of La Raza, said his group isn’t drawing any lines in the sand but said there’s a point at which the bill doesn’t meet the needs of the students. He said the earlier immigration debate showed some lawmakers are using negotiations to try to block any bill from passing.

“If we’re looking at changes to the bill that [make it] do nothing, that’s not a bill,” he said. “At some point we need to just get to the floor and have a vote on this bill.”

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