Senate to Debate Bush's Guest Worker Proposal

Immigration will be the hot topic for Republicans and Democrats in the Senate next week, where lawmakers are mulling President Bush's proposed guest program for immigrants. Senators are also debating how to improve border security, a key issue for several members. Alex Chadwick talks with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams about the political pressures of immigration policy, and what may happen to the president's proposal in the Senate.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes the Sklar brothers take us through the NCAA upsets last night and what to expect over the weekend.

CHADWICK: First, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams is back as usual on Friday's to talk politics. Juan welcome back to the show.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good to be with you, Alex.

CHADWICK: The big topic next week in the Senate, immigration. President Bush has already asked that they keep the debate civil. Now, Juan, he's actually said that twice this week. Why is he asking people to keep it civil?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, yesterday he was in the Roosevelt Room at the White House and Vice President Cheney, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove were with him with a group of people trying to set the tone. And you're just exactly right. He's trying to downplay all the excitement here because a lot of the rhetorical and political fireworks Alex are attached here.

You've got militia groups like the Minutemen placing themselves on the border. Then you've got people tying illegal immigrants to terrorist threats, to healthcare threats, avian flu and all the like, threats to racial balance of the country, national identity. So it gets really hot really quickly. And the President wants to reduce the heat because I guess he's on the wrong side of the heat.

The heat's coming from populist anger at 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants. His idea, the President's ideas, are coming from the needs of big business that want a supply of low wage workers, and so he's in favor of guest worker programs, and that's exactly the opposite of what the populist anger is all about.

CHADWICK: And this is looking like an electoral issue for '08, isn't it?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. You know, this is a very big issue if you look at...

CHADWICK: '06 first, but then '08 coming.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, but it's a very big issue for '08, because I think people look at presidential politics with the idea that the whole map is shifting with an increase in the number of Latino voters going forward towards '08. Latino voters were key in terms of Bush's victory in '04. And then you've got the growth of the Florida and Southwestern area all impacted by immigration. So again, it's going to be a key political issue in both races, '06 and '08, as you said.

CHADWICK: Two big Republican contenders, Senator McCain and Senator Frist, out on this issue.

WILLIAMS: Really big. You know, Senator Frist is really turning up the heat. Again, you know, he's challenging President Bush on this, but also challenging Senator McCain for the loyalty of the right wing base of the party in anticipation of a presidential campaign in which both Frist and McCain would be looking to woo that right wing base.

Frist is saying that if the Senate Judiciary Committee doesn't have a deal, some kind of package together by Monday night, he will bring a bill to the Senate floor that will debate simply security, border security issues on the Senate floor. No talk about any kind of guest worker plan or how illegal immigrants could be allowed to stay in the country or work to achieve a legal status.

CHADWICK: Just make the issue enforce the border. How about the Democrats on this?

WILLIAMS: Well, the Democrats are in an unusual position. Because of the split inside the GOP their vote is very important to both sides, but especially I think to the President. You've got the Democratic leader in the Senate, the Minority Leader Harry Reid, saying that he'll filibuster any bill that Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader who we talked about earlier, introduces that would focus only on enforcement.

You've got Ted Kennedy working with Senator McCain on a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for residency. And I think the most interesting thing that happened this week, Alex, was Hillary Clinton coming forward, another possible presidential candidate, and saying that what the Republicans and Frist are up to in specific would, quote, "criminalize the good Samaritan and probably Jesus himself."

CHADWICK: There was this great headline in the New York Times yesterday: Mrs. Clinton Says GOP Immigration Plan is at Odds with the Bible.

WILLIAMS: That's pretty strong stuff, Alex. I don't know. How do you vote against that one?

CHADWICK: Yeah, I'm not sure that's -- well, what do the Democrats offer as a plan?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's the Kennedy/McCain deal, which would allow illegal immigrants to apply for residency while they're in the country. You know, the President's plan is kind of broken into three year segments where while they're here they could apply, but then they'd have to leave and fill out forms and then come back for three more years and they couldn't do anything.

But according to the Kennedy/McCain plan you could apply while you're in the country and stay in the country, but then you'd have to get to the back of the line, kind of. So it's a different look at it.

But you'll also see from Senator Specter and the Judiciary Committee a similar compromise circulating and the question is can they get it together before Monday night? So that's the moderate plan. That's the less of the bombastic stuff that's making President Bush so frightful and asking for calm.

CHADWICK: And we already have a pretty good idea what the lead's going to be on Tuesday's show. Juan, we'll talk to you again next week. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Alex.

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