The Senate on Wednesday started a divisive debate on border security and an immigration bill that would create a temporary worker program pushed by President Bush, and could spell political danger for the Republican majority.
The outcome is far from clear, and senators are weighing the issue against the backdrop of huge protests across the country by largely Hispanic crowds opposed to a tough border security and enforcement bill approved by the House.
The Senate is expected to tackle a bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would create a new guest worker program and give millions of illegal aliens an opportunity to become citizens.
But in an unusual move by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, lawmakers started with the Tennessee Republican’s own border security and workplace enforcement legislation that does not include a guest worker program. The plan is to later replace Frist’s bill with the Judiciary Committee’s broad immigration overhaul.
The move underscores the divisions within the Republican majority between those who want to tackle only border security and enforcement issues, and those who believe only comprehensive immigration reform that brings illegal aliens out of the shadows will work.
Hispanic activists and analysts say the Republican split on immigration could sabotage the party’s long-range effort to court the country’s fastest-growing ethnic group.
“I think it would be a mistake for the Senate not to pass a comprehensive bill,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of four Republican who joined Democrats to pass the immigration bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday. “I think politically it would be a mistake and policy-wise it would be a mistake.”
Some Senate Republicans support a comprehensive approach but do not like provisions that offer foreign temporary workers and illegal immigrants a chance for citizenship. They argue it would reward illegal behavior and put those people ahead of others who have been waiting for years to enter the country legally.
“It is not necessary to provide that path to citizenship,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican. “Many people believe it is amnesty. I’m going to call it a different name. I’m going to call it unfair.”