Both Parties Look For A Plan B In Case Immigration Bill Stalls

Elana Schor, The Hill, May 16, 2007

The clock wound down on the Senate’s immigration talks yesterday, with both parties hoping for a deal but bracing for the fallout if Republicans decide to block Democratic leaders from taking up last year’s bipartisan bill.

Between immigrant-rights groups wary of provisions seen as too punitive and anti-legalization groups leery of any plans seen as amnesty, senators in the bipartisan talks are under tremendous pressure. Even if a deal does emerge, backlash from both sides of the emotional divide over immigration could imperil the Senate’s progress.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated yesterday that a procedural vote to take up last year’s immigration bill would occur today. Reid has asked senators to consider last year’s bill, which won 21 GOP votes, as a placeholder and to continue talking even after debate begins.

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But few Republicans are ready to begin the process without strong signs that a new agreement will materialize. Several pointed a finger at Democrats for wavering in their support for the particularly contentious elements of the immigration framework, indicating the precarious nature of the talks.

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Several senators, conscious of the long list of sticking points their colleagues still faced late yesterday, are readying alternative immigration proposals in case the negotiations stall. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Craig’s partner on the temporary-worker plan dubbed “AgJobs,” said she still intends to push for stand-alone passage of that bipartisan bill.

“AgJobs has to go ahead, and it has to go ahead fast,” Feinstein said. She offered words of caution for Reid as he presses forward with today’s deadline: “He’s pushing very hard, and this is a very big bill, with a lot of serious impacts in terms of public policy.”

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Attempts by Democratic congressional leaders to score a few business-friendly victories are risking a rupture with one of their staunchest allies: organized labor.

Labor leaders are carefully monitoring negotiations on a package to overhaul immigration law that could produce both an unwanted flood of new guest workers and temporary deportation of current workers—some of whom are likely union members.

On trade, several unions are already mobilizing to defeat a Democrat-negotiated new trade agreement with Peru and Panama that the White House and the business community hoped would be models for future trade deals. “We will fight like hell to oppose this shortsighted agreement,” said Jim Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The fissures come at a time when other labor priorities—an increase in the minimum wage and legislation easing their ability to organize—are both bottled up in the Senate and contributing to another layer of frustration among union workers.

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But a growing sense of impatience, and perhaps wariness, is emerging from a community that spent millions of dollars and countless man hours helping to oust Republicans and restore Democratic control of Congress. That guardedness is evident in the careful monitoring of the immigration negotiations.

Some labor unions want to see a proposed guest worker program cut in half from last year’s 400,000 positions. They also object to proposed plans to send workers back to their native countries as part of a process for gaining citizenship. “The wave of Latino workers is perceived as being a big opportunity for labor,” said Victor Kamber, a labor expert.

Republicans are holding firm on a big guest worker program, which is sought by businesses that need the labor. Negotiations are also stuck on how to manage the return-home requirement. Republicans are pushing a three-year visa, and then the go-home demand. Democrats are pressing for renewable three-year visas.

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The structure of the guest worker program has caused some of the strongest divisions. Republican senators have been firm that temporary means temporary, allowing workers to come to the country for a period of time, but they would have to return home with no chance at permanent legal residency.

Democrats have argued that those workers should be allowed to seek that permanent status, otherwise Congress would be creating a sort of permanent underclass. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a speech Tuesday at the National Press Club that not all of those workers would want citizenship.

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