GOP Rep. Hayworth Warns of Potential Major Rift in Party

House Republicans made it clear at their late January retreat at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia that they are not sold on the guest-worker/illegal-alien amnesty plan that President Bush is intent on pushing through Congress.

In his no-reporters-allowed speech at the retreat, President Bush did not mention the issue. “I thought it was strange he had spoken for so long and had not said a word about immigration,” said one House member who requested anonymity.

This member asked Bush why he had not addressed immigration, recalling how “many of us voted for the intelligence reform bill based on the promise that we would get an up-or-down vote on Jim Sensenbrenner’s bill that dealt with immigration.”

The congressmen recalled Bush’s saying, “We’re going to do an immigration bill.” But the congressmen added, the President “did not specifically say the Sensenbrenner bill.” Bush then made “a long and pretty emotional case for his own immigration proposal, including the guest worker program. He used some code words to try to placate us, like saying we shouldn’t punish people who come here to feed their families. But he never addressed the issue of whether they should be punished if they come here the wrong way, which is illegally.”

The next morning at a session on immigration reform, Representatives Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.) were outspoken opponents of any proposed guest-worker program. Sources told me that at least two other conservatives–Representatives Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Gil Gutknecht (Minn.)–were also particularly critical of the Bush proposal.

Following his return from the retreat, Hayworth told me: “It wasn’t just at the Greenbrier, but at a recent meeting the President had with us [Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee] at the [White House] residence that I told him that illegal immigrants were draining our own Social Security funds. ‘Mr. President,’ I said, ‘You’ve got to hold off on that reciprocal agreement with Mexico on Social Security.'” “Under that, we would honor their retirement system here and give immigrants from Mexico the full phalanx of benefits we give our retirees. How can we even talk about reforming Social Security when there are people here illegally draining the current system?”

“The bottom line,” said Hayworth, “is to enforce existing laws first, then possibly look at a guest-worker program.”

As for Bush’s response, Hayworth said, “He said thank you and was appreciative for the talk on border issues.”

When I asked White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan last week about growing differences between the President and congressional Republicans on border issues, he restated the President’s commitment to a guest-worker program and pointed out that “it will also allow us to free up other resources to focus on those who are coming across the border for the wrong reason, to go after the criminals and terrorists who are trying to come into this country.”

But many House Republicans aren’t buying this argument. As Hayworth put it, “This is an issue that is getting more and more problematic and one that could cause a major rift in our party.”