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G.O.P. Sets Aside Work on Immigration

New York Times | August 4, 2006
By CARL HULSE and RACHEL L. SWARNS

WASHINGTON — As they prepare for a critical pre-election legislative stretch, Congressional Republican leaders have all but abandoned a broad overhaul of immigration laws and instead will concentrate on national security issues they believe play to their political strength.

With Congress reconvening Tuesday after an August break, Republicans in the House and Senate say they will focus on Pentagon and domestic security spending bills, port security legislation and measures that would authorize the administration’s terror surveillance program and create military tribunals to try terror suspects.

“We Republicans believe that we have no choice in the war against terror and the only way to do it is to continue to take them head-on whether it is in Iraq or elsewhere,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the majority leader.

A final decision on what do about immigration policy awaits a meeting this week of senior Republicans. But key lawmakers and aides who set the Congressional agenda say they now believe it would be politically risky to try to advance an immigration measure that would showcase party divisions and need to be completed in the 19 days Congress is scheduled to meet before breaking for the election.

President Bush had made comprehensive changes in immigration laws a priority, even making the issue the subject of a prime-time address, but House Republicans have been determined not to move ahead with any legislation that could be construed as amnesty for anyone who entered the country illegally. They held hearings around the country in recent weeks to contrast their enforcement-only bill with a Senate measure that could lead to citizenship for some.

“I don’t see how you bridge that divide between us and the Senate,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “I don’t see it happening. I really don’t.”

Democrats say they are not surprised by the immigration impasse and believe some Republicans would prefer to keep the issue alive to stir conservative voters rather than reach a legislative solution.

They plan to highlight the collapse of immigration legislation sought by Mr. Bush and the likelihood that Congress will not meet an Oct. 1 deadline to pass most required spending bills as evidence that Republicans have lost sight of the concerns of average Americans. The Democrats are also intensifying calls for the dismissal of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“Every day, people around the country recognize that this is a failed administration,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. “If Republicans want to spend the whole month on nothing that is relevant to the American people, we are happy to do that.”

With Democrats poised to pick up seats in the House and Senate and Republicans determined to hang on to their majorities for the final two years of the Bush administration, the next few weeks promise to be highly combative, particularly after the August primaries made it clear that voters are not in a forgiving mood.

In a draft of a planning memorandum to be circulated to Republican senators, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is entering his last months as majority leader, said, “I expect minority obstructionism to be at an all-time high.” Republicans are already preparing for a post-election session to begin Nov. 13 and run at least up to Thanksgiving.

Mr. Frist laid out an ambitious agenda, including a vote on John Bolton’s renomination to be ambassador to the United Nations. But his memorandum did not even mention immigration. In an appearance in Iowa last week, Mr. Frist said broad legislation addressing what to do about millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States might have to await the next Congress.

Staff members from the Senate and House Judiciary Committees met last week to try to find some basis for common ground on the fate of the illegal population, but one participant said they made no progress.

Representative Mike Pence, the leader of the House conservative caucus and a proponent of an immigration compromise proposal that has attracted some White House interest, said he was also doubtful that legislation would reach Mr. Bush’s desk before the elections.

“Anything’s possible,” said Mr. Pence, Republican of Indiana, “but that’s probably not likely.”

Lawmakers of both parties who helped shape the Senate measure insisted that consensus was still within reach, even on the more difficult immigration issues, and immigrant advocacy groups are planning a series of marches this week to prod lawmakers to take action. Some Republicans warned that their party could suffer politically if it falls short.

“If there’s not legislation with Republicans in charge,” said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, “there’s going to be blame here, and justifiable blame, if we do not produce a bill.”

Two other senators who played a leading role in writing the Senate bill, John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, intend to urge Mr. Bush to bring lawmakers to the White House to broker a resolution.

“We can get the job done, but it’s going to require presidential leadership,” Mr. Kennedy said.

With the immigration measure seemingly stalled, Republicans say they will put most of their time and energy into security-oriented measures to drive home a theme that has served them well in the last two elections — that they are better equipped to thwart terrorism than are Democrats.

“They’ll wave the white flag in the war on terror,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Sunday of the Democrats on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”

But Democrats believe that voters will not be easily persuaded by the Republican push on national security and that the public increasingly sees the Iraq war as an impediment to the war on terror.

In a letter to Mr. Bush on Monday, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate urged him to begin pulling American troops out of Iraq this year.

“Mr. President, staying the course in Iraq has not worked and continues to divert resources and attention from the war on terrorism that should be the nation’s top security priority,” said the letter signed by Mr. Reid and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, as well as the senior Democrats on relevant committees.

The Democrats also urged Mr. Bush to fire Mr. Rumsfeld, and they intend to try to force no-confidence votes in coming days that could put Republicans on the spot, given statements by some in the party that Mr. Rumsfeld should resign. But the leadership remains supportive.

“I doubt there is any other American who could have done a better job over the last five years,” Mr. Boehner said of the defense secretary.

Since they will not finish the spending bills on time, Republican leaders will have to push through a stopgap measure to keep the government running through the election. But Republicans do hope to advance some nonsecurity measures. The major legislation on the floor in the House this week is a bill that would ban trading in horses to be slaughtered for human consumption.

 

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