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Prospects Dim for Immigration Reform Before Election

September 6, 2006
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As Congress returned from its August recess on September 5, the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill put security issues at the top of the agenda for the remaining weeks of the session, lengthening the odds that immigration legislation will be approved before the fall elections.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, and House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, both indicated that bills related to funding the Department of Defense, paying for border security, setting up military tribunals for terrorism suspects and authorizing a terrorist surveillance program would be the priority until September 29, the target date for adjournment.

"We’re putting the safety and security of the American people first," Frist said in a conference call with reporters on September 5.

As they did in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns, Republicans are portraying themselves as tougher and more resolute than Democrats in the fight against terrorism.

Legislative attention may be a zero-sum game as Congress winds down. Time spent on terrorism is time not devoted to reaching an immigration compromise.

Last December, the House passed a bill that focused on border security and workplace enforcement. In May, the Senate approved a comprehensive bill that also included a guest worker program and a path toward naturalization for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Instead of launching House-Senate negotiations this summer to iron out differences in the bills, House committees conducted 21 hearings around the country to examine the Senate measure. Most of the sessions revolved around elements opposed by conservatives.

Boehner told reporters September 5 that House committee chairmen would meet within the next week to "assess what they heard in July and August and assess what we should and shouldn’t do."

Neither Boehner nor Frist declared the immigration bill dead. "I’m not going to rule anything out at all," Frist said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, was pessimistic. He criticized Republicans for being in one of two gears on immigration—either opposing the Senate bill or saying nothing at all.

"I guess they’re teeing this up to get nothing done," Reid said in a meeting with reporters September 5. "The president has been silent on this. The chances of doing something on immigration in the next 12 days are pretty remote." Reid was referring to the legislative calendar.

Reid lamented that the GOP has conducted a "do nothing Congress" and warned that the party would pay at the polls.

One area that may get some action in September is border security funding. Boehner vowed that Congress would pass legislation that enhances border technology while increasing the number of patrol agents and the amount of fencing.

Employers may also get drawn into the fray. "You’re going to see a lot of activity on border security and work-site enforcement over the course of the next month," Frist said.

Both the House and Senate bills contain provisions that would increase sanctions on companies hiring illegal workers and would require all employers to sign onto an electronic employment verification system.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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