Congress Nibbles at Larger Immigration Issue Congress turns its attention to immigration, but not to the larger national policy bills that are stuck between the House and Senate. Instead, with midterm elections looming, Republican leaders in both chambers are focusing strictly on enforcement measures.
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Congress Nibbles at Larger Immigration Issue

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Congress Nibbles at Larger Immigration Issue

Congress Nibbles at Larger Immigration Issue

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Congress has returned to the issue of immigration, but not to the larger bills that passed the House and Senate earlier this year. Instead with midterm elections looming, Republican leaders in both chambers are focusing strictly on enforcement measures. Today the Senate voted unanimously to allow consideration of a bill passed last week in the House that calls for 700 miles of double-layer fencing along the border with Mexico. Democrats say it's election season pandering, but they did nothing to block the bill.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: GOP leaders have made no progress toward reconciling the enforcement only bill the House approved late last year with the Senate's immigration overhaul which has a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for millions here illegally.

Today Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist all but declared that legislation dead.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Maryland): Unfortunately at this point, it's pretty clear to everyone that we will not reach a conference agreement on comprehensive immigration reform before we break in September. While I've made it clear that I prefer a comprehensive solution, I have always said that we need an enforcement first approach to immigration reform. Not enforcement only, but enforcement first.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): What we're doing here today is about November. November 7th.

WELNA: That was Democratic Leader Harry Reid, protesting what Frist did bring to the floor, a bill that would separate the U.S. from Mexico with 700 more miles of fences.

Senator REID: They've had five years as the majority and the president since 9/11 to secure our borders, but they've basically ignored for five years this issue of national security. Now with the elections looming, you suddenly want to get serious about protecting America.

WELNA: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, who strongly opposed the immigration bill the Senate passed earlier this year, rejected the charge of political pandering.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): We're about to finish the session. We still haven't gotten it done. I don't want to go home without having done some things to improve the legal system of our border. I don't think most of us do, so we've got to get it done. We should have already had it done.

WELNA: But once again Senate Republicans are divided. Florida's Mel Martinez, who sponsored the comprehensive immigration bill the Senate approved earlier, fretted that only building fences could undermine efforts to revise immigration laws.

Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): If we were to think that this was getting the job done, it isn't really. This isn't going to secure our border. It's not going to secure the homeland because we still have 12 million people here that are unaccounted for.

WELNA: Still the looming elections seem to have made lawmakers, whether they're Republicans or Democrats, think twice about opposing border security. Illinois Democrat Barack Obama says the political reality is that the broader immigration bill was going nowhere.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): My conclusion based on the current politics is that unless the American people have a sincere sense that we're making progress on the border issues, we're not going to be able to resolve the pathway to citizenship.

WELNA: Activists who advocate more generous immigration laws warned today in a conference call with reporters that the Secure Fences Bill, as it's called, could well be combined with measures criminalizing illegal immigrants and be tacked onto the homeland security spending bill that Congress is expected to approve next week.

Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza said Republican leaders may pay a price for such moves in the upcoming midterm elections.

Ms. CECILIA MUNOZ (National Council of La Raza): I think they are politically playing with fire in moving this forward. We're talking about an election season following a season in which as many as 40 percent of Latinos supported the president's party. It's very hard to imagine that those numbers are going to look the same.

WELNA: The House, meanwhile, addressed another issue today related to immigration. In a party line vote, the Republican run chamber approved a bill requiring all voters to show a photo I.D. in order to vote in federal elections in 2008. The House bill would also require photo I.D.s that prove citizenship by the elections of 2010. House Democrats argued such requirements would restrain voting among the elderly and the poor, but Republicans called the I.D. cards an easy way to cut down on voter fraud.

Courts in Missouri and Georgia have recently struck down voter I.D. card requirements and the idea has an uncertain future in the Senate. Tomorrow the House is expected to vote on more parts of its stalled immigration enforcement bill, the measures that would make it a crime to be in the country illegally or to help those in that situation. In doing so, GOP leaders hope to deliver on their promises to get tough on illegal immigration, all before they leave to campaign for the midterm elections.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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