Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Republicans feel the heat: Leadership backs off felony status for immigrants

One day after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across the country to voice their opposition to a House sponsored immigration bill that would criminalize all undocumented immigrants and those who would give them aid, the top Republicans leaders from both houses announced that they were no longer supporting legislation that would reclassify immigration violations as felonies.

WASHINGTON -- The two top Republicans in Congress, confronted with internal party divisions as well as large public demonstrations, said Tuesday they intend to pass immigration legislation that does not subject illegal aliens to prosecution as felons.

A written statement by House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, did not say whether they would seek legislation subjecting illegal immigrants to misdemeanor prosecution or possibly a civil penalty such as a fine.

"It remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony," the two men said. An estimated 11 million men, women and children are in the United States illegally.

The Republican-controlled House passed legislation late last year that is generally limited to border security measures. It makes illegal immigrants subject to felony prosecution.

Senate efforts to write a broader bill _ covering border security, a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million in the country illegally _ are gridlocked with lawmakers on a two-week vacation.

Frist has said he intends to bring the issue back to the Senate floor, although he stopped short of a flat commitment and the prospects for passage of an election-year immigration bill are uncertain.

The late-afternoon statement by the top GOP leaders in both houses came after days of large street demonstrations by protesters opposed to criminal penalties for illegal immigrants.

Additionally, in a Washington Post-ABC News poll published during the day, only 20 percent of those questioned said they favored declaring illegal immigrants to be felons and barring them from work. More than 60 percent indicated support for the general approach envisioned in the leading Senate proposal. It includes a requirement that illegal immigrants be required to pay a fine and back taxes as part of a process of qualifying for eventual citizenship


The question of a penalty has dogged the debate for months and been the subject of intense political maneuvering.

GOP aides pointed out that Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had tried during debate on the House floor to reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor

The attempt failed on a vote of 257-164, with 65 Republicans and 191 Democrats opposed. Many of the Democrats, including members of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, indicated at the time they favored no criminal penalties, and opposed the suggested change.

In their statement, Hastert and Frist said the Democrats who did so had demonstrated a "lack of compassion." In addition, they renewed the charge that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is seeking to "block action on immigration legislation."


While they leveled their accusations at Reid, the GOP leadership has been struggling with internal divisions.

Several House Republican conservatives have vociferously denounce Senate proposals as amnesty for lawbreakers.

And while Frist praised the leading Senate proposal last week as a "huge breakthrough," he was the only member of the GOP leadership to embrace it. Two other members of the group, Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, voiced their opposition. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania opposes the measure, according to a spokesman.

Washington Post

(more below the fold)

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With the Senate on break until April 24, the Republican leadership will undoubtedly work feverishly to try to spin themselves out of the apparent public relations debacle that the immigration debate has become for them. With the divisions within the party still at the breaking point it appears that it might be nearly impossible for Mr. Frist and Mr.Hastert to attain any sort of consensus amongst their members. This leaves the door open for those more moderate Republicans to join ranks with Democrats to put forward a "bipartisan" plan that in fact does not have majority backing from Republicans. Something Majority Leader Frist has feared would happen from the start.

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