By MICHAEL DOYLE
April 14, 2005
In sometimes testy language that revealed intra-party as well as traditional partisan splits, the Senate debated adding diverging immigration reform ideas to a popular Iraq funding bill. The upwelling revealed the power of immigration politics as well as the limited authority of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had beseeched lawmakers to steer clear of immigration legislation for now.
And though the wrangling will continue at least through Thursday, this is still all preliminary to a coming House-and-Senate negotiating session. That's where the final legislation _ including possible agricultural guest-worker and driver's license components _ will be decided later this year.
"That's going to be a battle royal," Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein predicted in an interview.
Feinstein on Wednesday joined Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn in pushing a non-binding resolution urging the Senate not to bog down the Iraq supplemental spending bill with further immigration provisions. That resolution, which could prove a key test vote for what's to come, passed by a 61-38 margin.
"This will open up a long and complicated debate on the floor of the Senate," Feinstein said of the diverse immigration provisions under consideration. "We should not do that."
Feinstein's Democratic colleague, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, opposed her on the effort to keep immigration measures off of the Iraq bill. Even though the resolution passed, moreover, senators quickly proceeded to parade their own immigration priorities into public.
An ambitious and controversial effort by Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig would tack a sweeping agricultural guest-worker bill onto the Iraq spending bill. Craig claimed the support of 49 or 50 senators for the so-called AgJobs bill, which would provide temporary worker permits and the prospect of eventual U.S. citizenship for an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants now doing farm work in the United States.
"California has a very large problem," Craig said, citing the prevalence of illegal farm workers. "Shame on us for not having the time to deal with this."
Craig, who has previously tussled with Feinstein on gun control issues, warned that "she better be careful, because she could collapse the agricultural economy" by opposing the expanded guest-worker plan. Sarcastically, Feinstein retorted that she was pleased the Idaho conservative is "such a great expert on California agriculture."
In an interview, Craig said he intends to press for a Senate vote on his AgJobs bill, which has secured the support of groups like the United Farms Workers and California Farm Bureau Federation. The bill's language could also change, though, as Feinstein suggested she might try further amending it.
None of this was originally in the cards for the underlying supplemental funding bill, which began as an effort to finance U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current Senate bill would provide $80.5 billion, including money for replacing battle-damaged equipment and $582 million for constructing a massive new American embassy in Baghdad. It boosts to $100,000 from $12,420 the lump sum payment made to family members of those killed in combat.
The House passed its own $81.3 billion package, including funds for local projects as well as language allowing the District of Columbia to use taxpayer funds to build a new baseball stadium. House conservatives also put immigration in play, by adding in provisions that stiffen asylum rules and set national standards prohibiting illegal immigrants from obtaining for drivers' licenses.
"I would rather have a clean bill," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said, "but they created the problem."