Bush Tries to Breathe New Life into Immigration Bill
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's another challenge for a White House press secretary: stiff opposition remains to an immigration bill. In fact, it looked comatose when the Senate left for a recess earlier this month, although it may have been revived. President Bush invited a bipartisan group of senators over to the White House to discuss the immigration stalemate.
Republicans are still sharply divided, as NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA reporting:
During the two weeks senators were out of town, Republicans piled blame on Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid for stalling immigration legislation the day they left. They accused Reid of sidetracking a Republican-brokered compromise by blocking any consideration of amendments. But all seemed to be forgiven when Reid and a bipartisan bunch of senators trooped over to the White House yesterday afternoon.
After meeting there for an hour with President Bush, Reid emerged, proclaiming a newfound faith in the president's intentions.
Sen. HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Democratic Leader): I have to say that this meeting that we just had, I have to pat the president on the back. This was really, I thought, a good, good meeting. He's for comprehensive immigration reform. He said he is, and I believe him.
WELNA: And so did Arlen Specter. He's the Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee and who's been trying to win the full Senate's approval of an immigration overhaul.
Sen. ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): After this meeting, I'm convinced that we will pass immigration reform this year.
WELNA: Specter made it clear, though, that President Bush had stopped short of actually embracing the legislation.
Sen. SPECTER: I'm not saying he's endorsing the Senate's bill, but he's talking about the ingredients of the Senate bill.
WELNA: But, only in general and non-specific terms. Here's President Bush's assessment after the meeting, of what should be in an immigration bill.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: There is a common desire to have a bill that enforces the border, a bill that has interior enforcement--in other words, a bill that'll hold people to account for hiring somebody who is here illegally. But, a bill that also recognizes we must have a temporary-worker program. A bill that does not grant automatic amnesty to people, but a bill that says somebody who's working here on a legal basis, has the right to get in line to become a citizen.
WELNA: Still, the president left unclear, whether he wants millions of immigrants, in the country illegally, to get in line for citizenship. It's an issue splitting his party, and one he's avoided taking a stand on. In any case, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist promised, after the White House meeting...
Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Senate Majority Leader): In the very near future, we will bring that bill back to the floor of the United States Senate, that we will have appropriate procedure with debate and amendment, and that we will pass a bill that will be comprehensive.
WELNA: For his part, the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, signaled his party may let the bill move forward, by allowing, at least, some amendments to be considered.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): As far as we're concerned, I hope we can limit them to a reasonable number. I hope those who want to kill the bill will take a few votes and, maybe, realize where the sentiment of the Congress is at this moment--and, maybe, back off of the 400 or 500 amendments they've offered.
WELNA: Republican opponents of the immigration legislation, who were pointedly not invited to the White House yesterday, say it needs sharp revision if they're to support it. Texas Republican John Cornyn says the bill claims to have a guest-worker program.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): But while the current proposal is described as a temporary-worker program, it is anything but. All unskilled workers--325,000 a year--would automatically become eligible for green cards after working in the United States for four years.
WELNA: What's more, majority leader Frist is backpedaling from his initial support for the Senate compromise, which allows those who've been in the country illegally at least five years, to pursue citizenship. Frist, who's made it clear he'd like to be the next president, told NPR the bill goes too far, and amounts to an amnesty.
Sen. FRIST: When we bring it back, there will be amendments to modify--in the temporary worker program, and probably in the 12-15 million people who are coming out of the shadows--to pull back on the amnesty provisions. I would pull back on the amnesty provisions and will support those amendments.
WELNA: In a move aimed at placating those who want tougher border security, especially if an immigration bill never gets passed, Senate Republicans are now pushing to add $2 billion in border security funding to an emergency supplemental bill for Iraq that's now moving to the Senate. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham thinks it may help the stalled immigration bill.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): By addressing border security in the supplemental, you show that you're really serious about all facets of it. And, if you're a senator looking for border security to become a reality, the money is where the mouth is.
WELNA: But in a sign of how deadlocked immigration policy remains in the Senate, Democrats oppose the border security funding because they say the Republicans would pay for it by reducing funding for U.S. troops. That issue is to be voted on later today.
David Welna, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Our senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, tells us that a Senate deal on immigration looks increasingly unlikely. And you can find his analysis on what to expect in the immigration debate by going to NPR.org.