Union Tribune

September 28, 2003

Politicians cross aisle to push farm-worker bill


WASHINGTON A classic story of immigration politics is unfolding on Capitol Hill, where conservatives are banding with liberals to promote controversial legislation.

A group of conservative legislators, pushed by its labor-hungry farming and landscaping allies, has joined forces with liberals, urged on by their immigrant-advocate friends, to put an estimated 500,000 undocumented farm workers on a path toward legal residency.

"It's an impressive coalition," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

Kennedy and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, are the bill's principal architects. Another odd couple is pushing the bill in the House of Representatives: Utah Republican Chris Cannon and California Democrat Howard Berman.

The right-left alliance, which has become a force in immigration issues, is promoting the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act. The bill also would slash much of the red tape that bedevils employers who want to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis.

The legislation has drawn support from business interests far beyond the farms and fields whose work forces it would affect.

John Gay of the American Hotel and Lodging Association said the bill, and the coalition formed to back it, "can serve as models for much-needed, broader immigration reform" aimed at legalizing many more of the estimated 7 million to 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Though the bill quickly gathered 19 sponsors in the Senate, its passage there is far from assured. In any case, it is certain to face stiff opposition in the House, where critics ridicule the claim that the bill offers "earned adjustment" rather than amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"They're using a euphemism because they know amnesty is so controversial," said Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who has become the most outspoken congressional opponent of programs to aid illegal immigrants. "I will be doing everything I possibly can to defeat it."

The bill's most formidable obstacle is likely to be the main gatekeeper on immigration legislation, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. He is known for his stern opposition to any whiff of amnesty.

Under normal House procedures, Sensenbrenner could kill the bill by refusing to grant it a hearing, thereby keeping it from coming to a vote on the House floor. So advocates of the bill are considering attaching the measure to an appropriations bill in the Senate.

If the Senate approved the measure, it could then go to a conference committee that would bring together members of the two houses. They would iron out a proposal that would go back to both full houses for a final vote.

"That's what I'm most worried about," Tancredo said.

House Judiciary Committee spokesman Jeff Lungren said Sensenbrenner "would vigorously oppose an effort to essentially sneak a controversial amnesty package into a broader bill."

A move to circumvent Sensenbrenner would require the approval of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, who is generally known for his deference to committee chairmen and his desire to maintain unity among House Republicans.

"There are instances when Speaker Hastert asserts himself, but he generally wouldn't want to do anything that would be seen as a slap in the face of the Judiciary Committee chair," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said an attempt to circumvent Sensenbrenner "is probably not going to happen," given Hastert's preference to follow customary legislative routes. But Hastert, who has been heavily lobbied by Illinois landscapers, came out in favor of the bill this week, raising the hopes of industry lobbyist Craig Regelbrugge.

"He clearly will be very important" in deliberations on the bill, said Regelbrugge, who added that landscapers and farmers across the country need the bill to stabilize their work forces.

The White House remains a wild card.

President Bush has said he would like to see a "guest worker" program, but he has approached the issue cautiously. White House efforts to reach an immigration deal with Mexico broke down over the specifics, especially over the issue of legalization or amnesty for undocumented workers.

A Democratic congressional staffer said of the White House team: "They support (the new bill) and they would sign it, but the $64,000 question is: Will they do any heavy lifting or invest any political capital? They'd really like this to happen by immaculate conception."

Jerry Kammer: (202) 737-7681; jerry.kammer@copleydc.com