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Immigration divides GOP, key business group

The House Republican leadership and the nation's business lobby, usually close allies, are battling each other over the issue of immigration.
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The House Republican leadership and the nation's business lobby, usually close allies, are battling each other over the issue of immigration.

In a rare schism, employer groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pressing to kill a GOP-sponsored measure that would require businesses to verify that all of their workers are in the United States legally and would increase penalties for hiring illegal employees.

Lobby groups including the Chamber, the National Restaurant Association and the Associated General Contractors of America are so vehement in their opposition that they will consider lawmakers' votes on the bill a key measure of whether they will support them in the future.

Still, acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) appears to welcome the chance to disagree with his normal confederates. "Congressman Blunt sees no problem with being in a different place from the Chamber on this legislation," said Burson Taylor, a spokeswoman for Blunt.

The immigration debate comes as lawmakers are facing rising public criticism for their cozy relationships with lobbyists. Recent scandals have led to one lawmaker's resignation for taking bribes and to the investigation of several others. The atmosphere has given a leg up in the immigration fight to the faction of House Republicans that has long been wary of its party's ties to business lobbyists. The vote is scheduled for tomorrow.

GOP leaders assert that the measure is an overdue effort to improve border security and to protect American jobs by ensuring that only workers with legitimate documentation are eligible to be employed. The bill would phase in for all employers a program in which businesses would be required to check names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth against government records to verify that their workers can work legally. Fines for knowingly hiring an undocumented worker would also be increased. As for the workers, those in this country illegally could be charged with a felony.

The business groups contend that the verification system, which has only been tried in experimental form, is too mistake-prone to give employers accurate results. They worry that, as a result, companies might be subjected to steep and misapplied penalties because of faulty computer readouts, and that individuals might have their working status jeopardized and their private backgrounds scrutinized needlessly.

‘Addicted to cheap labor’
"There's a huge chasm between us and big business," said Will Adams, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a leader of the 90 or so House members who want a get-tough approach to illegal immigration. "They're addicted to cheap labor, which illegal aliens provide. It's in their interests to keep the border porous and to keep the labor flowing."

Business groups deny that they want illegal or free-flowing immigration. Instead, they would accept some extra verification of new employees. They also would like a broader measure that would give workers legal status or at least allow them to stay and work in this country -- a provision the House legislation now lacks.

But lobbyists acknowledge that the Republican bill, which emerged from committee last week, has been moving so quickly that they might not have enough time to stop it. "This whole thing has been compressed," said Randy Johnson, the Chamber's vice president for labor and immigration. "We're doing the best we can in a bad situation."

The situation is the reverse of typical practice. The Chamber and like-minded trade associations have for years been carefully clued in early about a wide range of activities in Congress and the Bush administration. The information often came to them during regularly scheduled meetings with lawmakers and their top aides. The closed-door sessions enabled them to work closely with Republicans to help fund and provide foot soldiers for a string of pro-business successes ranging from tax cuts to free-trade agreements.

This time many of the same industry organizations are writing angry letters, deploying lobbyists and ginning up e-mails, phone calls and faxes from their members across the country to protest the Republican immigration bill. Among the groups complaining about the House bill is Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative association led by Grover G. Norquist, who is one of the Republicans' most loyal advocates.

In a letter to congressmen last week, Norquist criticized the immigration measure because it "probably creates unworkable hardships on the private sector, as well as raising significant privacy concerns for all Americans." In a separate letter, R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the Chamber, expressed "disappointment" in the bill.

Business interests and congressional Republicans have sometimes differed in recent years, but usually on relatively minor matters. The Chamber doesn't want every aspect of the USA Patriot Act to be extended for example, and GOP leaders have been reluctant to extend terrorism reinsurance legislation, which is a top priority of several corporate groups.

But those disputes haven't produced the kind of showdown that is threatening in the House this week. Lobbyists reached yesterday couldn't remember the last time that prominent business groups listed a vote against the Republican leadership as a "key vote" determining their organizations' view of a lawmaker's record.

‘A little disconnect’
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), a former restaurateur and Chamber of Commerce member, believes the business groups are out of sync with public opinion. "There's a little disconnect here between some of the [business] leaders in the Washington, D.C., area versus the folks out here in the country who recognize we have a problem," he said.

"It's just one issue trumping another issue," agreed Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) "The whole issue of reining in illegal immigration is more significant than accommodating business concerns." He added that he did not think the guilty plea of former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) or other lobbying-related scandals recently have anything to do with the spat.

In the meantime, corporate organizations will be pushing to defeat the basic Republican bill or to amend it in ways that add a guest worker program or ease its verification and penalty requirements. They also will be looking to the Senate for a comprehensive measure that is more to their liking.

"It's not over 'til it's over," Josten said.