House leaders on immigration policy said yesterday that there isn’t enough support in Congress to pass a guest-worker program for illegal aliens, despite President Bush’s renewed push for such a proposal.
“As far as the House of Representatives is concerned, I don’t necessarily see an environment that has changed dramatically enough that would allow for a guest-worker bill to gain majority support,” said Rep. John Hostettler, Indiana Republican and chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
“In our subcommittee, we have held hearings in the 108th Congress that indicate such a program would continue a long-term downward spiral in the wages of low-skilled and no-skill workers,” he said. “The simple fact of the matter is when we bring in individuals who are willing to work at such low wages, we do nothing but displace American citizens.”
The Washington Times reported yesterday that the Bush administration plans an aggressive push on its first-term proposal to relax rules against illegal immigration—a move unpopular with the Republican base, which sees such guest-worker programs as a veiled amnesty.
On Tuesday while meeting with officials in Mexico City, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said there is a better chance of passing legislation to address the millions of illegal aliens living and working in the United States.
And in Washington, White House political adviser Karl Rove said Mr. Bush will renew his push for the guest-worker proposal in the new Congress.
That effort is bound to infuriate conservatives, who believe that they were key to Mr. Bush’s re-election last week and say this is a strange use of a presidential mandate.
“It is highly unusual for an administration to use their political capital that was given by the base against the base,” one Republican strategist said.
Mr. Bush drew a rebuke from many House Republicans in January when he proposed creating a renewable temporary-worker program open both to illegal immigrants already in the United States and to new applicants abroad and suggested allowing more legal permanent immigrants to enter the country each year.
After hearing from constituents, Republican lawmakers meeting in Philadelphia a month later gave Mr. Rove an earful and said the program sounded like amnesty. Congressional aides yesterday said opposition in the House hasn’t changed.
“For us, it’s about our members,” said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. “We have the same members.”
Still, he said Mr. Bush should be commended for taking a stand on the issue and the challenge is for Congress to respond somehow.
“The president has been courageous in coming up with a plan to fix a problem. Congress needs to help the president fix the problem,” he said.
Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said, “We always welcome the president’s policy contributions and will continue to take a serious look at his contributions.”
The White House yesterday defended Mr. Bush’s plan, with press secretary Scott McClellan telling reporters that Mr. Bush “does not support blanket amnesty,” but will continue to push for his temporary-worker proposal.
Mr. Bush met with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, on Tuesday, and the two men talked about the need for new immigration programs.
Mr. McCain, who has introduced his own guest-worker bill, appeared on the “Imus in the Morning” radio program yesterday and talked in general terms about immigration, said his spokeswoman, Crystal Benton.
But she said Mr. McCain was traveling in upstate New York and could not be reached by reporters or her office to find out more about the Oval Office meeting or plans to pursue his bill.
For his part, Mr. McClellan would not talk about the details of the meeting, saying it was a private discussion that included immigration and other issues.
“It’s part of our continuing efforts to talk with members of Congress about how we can move forward on the priorities the president outlined,” Mr. McClellan said.
Asked whether Mr. Bush was coming around to Mr. McCain’s plan, which would give illegals a shorter path to citizenship than the White House has envisioned, Mr. McClellan said, “The president remains committed to the plan that he outlined to create a temporary-worker program.”
Mr. Bush has only laid out principles and has not submitted a bill of his own, and Mr. McClellan wouldn’t say whether the White House will submit specific legislation.
“We’re going to continue working closely with Congress on this issue as we move forward, “ he said. “We’ll certainly keep you posted of conversations that we have as we can.”
Democrats have said they hope Mr. Bush’s renewed push will lead to action, although Democratic leaders on the issue are looking for a plan that is broader than either Mr. Bush’s or Mr. McCain’s, including a much faster path to citizenship for those here illegally.
With their support and that of many Republican senators, there is a better chance of the Senate acting next year than the House.
More than 60 senators have signed on as co-sponsors of a bill that would legalize the status of nearly 1 million illegal alien agricultural workers, but the White House has opposed that bill as a piecemeal approach and Republican leaders in the Senate shied away from bringing it up right before the election.
Scot Montrey, a spokesman for Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and the man who heads Republican senators’ task force on immigration, didn’t return calls on the issue.
But Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who backs a guest-worker program that would create an incentive for the workers to leave after their time is up, said he wants the debate to start.
“I do believe it would be helpful to have a bill brought up, or perhaps hold more hearings first, and try to achieve consensus about what’s doable,” he said.