Senate majority leader Bill Frist and GOP Sen. Sam Brownback
stood together on trade, war, judges, guns, energy, abortion, and
war, but they are bookends in this week's debate on "earned" amnesty
for illegal aliens - the toughest issue before the Senate this year.
They illustrate the rift that runs through both parties, but
especially the GOP, which controls both the House and Senate. That
rift yawns so large that it could keep Congress from passing any
immigration legislation this year.
Senator Frist, a prospect for a presidential run in 2008, wants a
"virtual barrier" to secure borders first. It's about what it means
to be a nation, he says: "A nation that can't secure its borders
can't secure its destiny or administer its laws."
Senator Brownback, also a prospect for 2008, backs border
security, but says he also wants a way to get 11 million
undocumented people into a legalized status. It's about human
dignity, he says: "One of the key measures in any society is what
you do for the so-called least of these."
Polls show a strong majority of Republican voters oppose amnesty
for those in the country illegally, but business groups, a core GOP
constituency, want to assure a supply of low-wage workers for
agriculture, construction, restaurant, and other services.
For Frist, who stumbled badly over his handling of the Terri
Schiavo debacle a year ago, it's a chance to lead his party through
a political mine field. "I'm here to solve problems, not stand
around," he said in a statement on the floor of the Senate early
Frist had given the Senate Judiciary Committee an ultimatum:
Produce a bill by end-of-day Monday, or the Senate would take up his
own immigration reform plan. Brownback is one of four Republicans on
the Senate Judiciary Committee, including chairman Arlen Specter (R)
of Pennsylvania, to side with Democrats in a bid for comprehensive
immigration reform this session of Congress.
The Judiciary Committee's bill opens a path to citizenship for at
least 11 million people living in the United States illegally. It
allows those who were in the US before 2004 to get a temporary work
visa, if they pay a $1,000 fine and clear a criminal background
check. After six years, they would be eligible for permanent legal
residence, if they learn English and pay back taxes and another
Frist's alternative, still in play, focuses exclusively on border
security. That means more boots on the borders, unmanned aerial
vehicles, cameras, sensors, and "a virtual barrier to cover every
mile of our 1,950-mile long border with Mexico." (The House bill
also includes a 700-mile wall along the southern border.)
The Frist bill also requires employers to verify the legal status
of their workers, using a federal electronic database. Those
employers engaging in a pattern of hiring illegal workers would face
up to six months in jail. Those living in the country illegally are
guilty of a misdemeanor; under the House bill, it's a felony.
Right up until the last vote late Monday afternoon, prospects for
completing the complex bill looked unlikely. In the end, committee
chairman Specter, as well as GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South
Carolina, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Brownback of Kansas lined up with
all eight Democrats on the panel to complete a bill. …