Republicans Run Scared on Immigration

March is going out like a lion for Republicans as they take up two of the issues that have hurt them most with their own voting base: immigration and spending.

On Monday, under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate Judiciary Committee made key choices that will affect the future of immigration reform, a signature issue for President Bush.

Frist threatened to bring to the floor an enforcement-only immigration bill, similar to the one that passed the House, unless the Judiciary Committee approved a bill. Frist’s bill would more than double the number of Border Patrol officers and implement several other policies aimed at border enforcement. It includes the beginnings of a full border fence, to be built on several high-traffic portions of the U.S.-Mexico border.

President Bush opposes an enforcement-only bill. By calling for a “comprehensive bill” that includes the two issues, he is using border-enforcement as a bargaining chip in order to establish a guest-worker program. Whereas Bush’s approach has his business supporters and a broader diplomatic agenda in mind, Frist’s approach is more sensitive to the needs of a troubled GOP Congress that now faces an uncertain election year.

The pre-recess threat by Frist prompted quick action from Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to mark up a comprehensive immigration bill. By leading on this issue as well as asbestos, judicial nominations, and wiretapping, Specter continues to dominate the workings of the U.S. Senate. His ability to hurry this bill through his committee in a single day was truly impressive, even to those dissatisfied with the final product.

Bush has long insisted on uniting the issues of guest-workers and border enforcement. Politically, this approach is a loser for Congressional Republicans, who, unlike Bush, face re-election this year. At the very least, it squanders an opportunity to make Democrats vote against border enforcement. Moreover, some Republican members of Congress could be damaged by a “comprehensive” bill, especially if it comes in the more permissive form that will emerge from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee bill will include the McCain-Kennedy amnesty provisions that give those illegally present in the U.S. guest-worker status and a path to citizenship. This passed the committee with the vote of presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). The bill also contains other provisions that will never survive on the Senate floor, or at least will not become law. A significant portion of the Republican base is so strongly opposed to amnesty that there could be consequences in the 2006 election.

The best political move for Republicans is a vote on the Frist bill and a separation of the two issues of border security and guest-worker/amnesty programs. The need for border enforcement is universally acknowledged, and voters would likely punish Democrats if they filibuster a border-security bill in the Senate. On the other hand, such a move would require total Republican support.

The immigration issue is troubling for Republicans and divides conservatives, but it is not exactly the great boon for Democrats that one might expect. A hint of this came about when Democratic Sens. Clinton (N.Y.), Reid (Nev.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Ted Kennedy (Mass.) threatened to filibuster the border-security bill Frist was proposing. Such a filibuster would be devastating for Democrats on the issue of national security. Fully 75 percent of Americans polled believe that the government is not doing enough to secure the U.S. border.

The threat of filibuster also comes after Clinton spent months positioning herself as an immigration hawk. Democrats have no choice but to play both sides of the fence on immigration for two separate and competing interests within their base of support: low-income laborers and immigration advocates.

Republicans are still scared about this issue. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was absent from the entire hearing. The only proxy vote he cast was on the final bill.

Line-Item Veto’s Problems

As a way of dealing with excessive congressional spending, President Bush is now seeking a modified version of the line-item veto.

This request is problematic in a number of ways. It smacks of gimmickry because Bush has failed to exercise a single veto in five years as President. Also, the Supreme Court in 1998 declared a line-item veto unconstitutional because it cut Congress out of the legislative process. Even if this new version clears its formidable legislative hurdles and actually passes, it would require positive congressional assent to each veto, which might make the whole process unworkable.

A new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has found that more than 95 percent of all earmarks are not written into law but merely contained in conference reports. The administration, therefore, is not legally bound to honor such requests for money. A bipartisan, Left-Right group of five senators—Republicans John McCain (Ariz.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), and Jim DeMint (S.C.), and Democrats Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.) — have written the President asking him to ignore earmarks that are not contained within actual appropriations bills.

All indications are that Bush opposes this idea, even though it could be done without firing a political shot, so to speak. If lawmakers are required to submit earmarks for floor action by the Senate and House, this ability to overspend would be sharply curtailed. Certainly, this would give Bush a chance to save the GOP Congress from itself and exercise party leadership in the process.