Congress to consider easing presidential eligibility: Naturalized citizens would be able to hold highest office
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Congress to consider easing presidential eligibility: Naturalized citizens would be able to hold highest office

San Francisco Chronicle |October 1, 2004

Washington -- The constitutional amendment that could allow Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for president starts making its uncertain way through Congress on Tuesday.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who first introduced the amendment in July 2003 -- before Schwarzenegger announced on Aug. 6. of that year that he would run in the recall election against then-Gov. Gray Davis -- has scheduled the first hearing on the proposed amendment Tuesday in the Judiciary Committee that he chairs. The committee will hear testimony but won't take a vote.

Hatch's amendment calls for changing the Constitution's current provision, spelled out in Article 2 Section 1. Drafted in 1787, it says that only natural-born Americans at least 35 years old who have lived in the country for 14 years can serve as president or vice president.

The Utah senator's proposed amendment calls for allowing people who have been naturalized citizens for at least 20 years to run for and serve as president. The Austrian-born Schwarzenegger, who has endorsed the idea of changing the Constitution, became a U.S. citizen in 1983 after coming to the United States in 1968.

Proposals for changing the Constitution have also been made in the House. The latest, introduced in September by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, also includes the 20-year period. Others set a 35-year requirement. But none of the House proposals has come up for a hearing.

Support for amending the Constitution to allow naturalized citizens to serve as president came Thursday from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

"I have long thought that we could revisit that issue,'' Pelosi told reporters.

But she said she thought the 20-year period of citizenship before a person would become eligible might be the wrong approach. Instead, she suggested the measure should be the length of residency in the country, coupled with a person becoming a citizen during that period.

"I think there has to be a reasonable length of time that the person has resided in the country, and 20 years, I don't think that is long enough," Pelosi said. "It takes some people that long to get their Ph.D. I think you do have to go a little longer to be president of the United States.''

"I think the 35-year provision probably makes more sense, that somebody is raised in our country or has lived here long enough to have an appreciation for the culture and the beautiful diversity of our country to serve as our president,'' she added.

Opposition came from Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, who was born in Budapest, Hungary, arrived in this country in 1947 and became a citizen in 1952. "I am irrevocably opposed. Our Constitution should only be amended for the most pressing and substantive reasons. There are 250 million native-born Americans, and there ought to be enough talent among them to find someone to serve as president.

"But if there is a restoration of the Austro-Hungarian empire, I am ready to consider a joint candidacy with Arnold, provided I am on top of the ticket. ''

It is difficult to amend the Constitution, which has been done successfully only 17 times since the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1791. It takes a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states for an amendment to become law.

The current wording was put in the Constitution by the document's drafters because -- fresh from the war for independence from Britain's King George III -- they feared that a European prince could move to America, maneuver his way into the presidency and subvert democracy in favor of monarchy.

In several interviews, Schwarzenegger has endorsed an amendment that would allow him to run for president, without saying that he would undertake such a race.


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911:  The Road to Tyranny