Playing the Spoiler on Immigration

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Getting Republicans together has been the major stumbling block on immigration reform. Twenty-three GOP senators supported President Bush's plan, which would strengthen border security, create a guest worker program and offer a path to citizenship for the some 10 million illegals already in this country. On the other side are most House Republicans, who want border security only and don't want to hear about anything that they regard as "amnesty" until later, if ever. Today House Republicans stunned their Senate colleagues by announcing that they intend to hold public hearings around the country this August to highlight what they see as the bad parts of the Senate version of immigration reform. It's a highly unusual road show designed to get the Senate, which passed a plan to Bush's liking earlier this spring, closer to their more hard-line position. But a more subtle game may be afoot among Republicans, designed to strengthen the compromise plan of Rep. Mike Pence — first reported on — that leans in the direction of the hard-line House; it would crank up border security, have a modest guest worker program and insist that illegals leave the country before reapplying for citizenship. tracked down two of the key players in this legislative face-off and asked about the new development. In the Speaker's lobby off the House floor today, House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio told the move was not designed to scuttle immigration reform this year: Are you going in for the kill on immigration?

Boehner: No.... We're going to highlight some of those provisions in the Senate bill to make sure people know what the Senate bill really does. Which parts?

Boehner: In-state tuition for illegal aliens. Welfare benefits for people who are here illegally. I don't know what all the provisions are, but there's some stuff in there that I don't think folks I know would agree with. You're going in for the kill.

Boehner: No. Understand something here. I believe that we need to pass a good bill.

Translation: The Senate bill has to come a lot closer to what we want. Meanwhile, in the basement of the Capitol, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana spoke with before holding the latest in a series of meetings with Senate hard-liner Jon Kyl of Arizona, a kindred spirit to the House Republicans. What does the [road show] mean for immigration reform?

Pence: Taking time this summer to expose the amnesty elements of the Senate bill would be very useful. I think it could help clear the way for a no-amnesty compromise that would be able to pass the House and Senate. Of the sort you have proposed?

Pence: I think there would be a way we could secure the border, pass tough employer sanctions and implement a guest worker program without amnesty. Is there a danger that this just leads to blockage and nothing gets done? What are the election-year risks?

Pence: The worst thing we could do would be to pass the Senate amnesty bill and send it to the President's desk. Are the Senators trying to jump on your bill as a way out of the Boehner-Hastert attack?

Pence: I've been having meetings here since broke this story. I've been meeting with a number of members of the Senate. This meeting is in no way a response to today's developments.

For their part, several Senate GOP staffers spoke with agreed that a public airing of the more moderate provisions in the Senate bill could doom their measure. Instead of enjoying the Republican chaos, however, Democrats were left scrambling to catch up. Sen. Harry Reid today called on President Bush to push those conservative House Republicans to begin a House-Senate conference immediately. But with his ratings low, and House Republicans digging in deeper, Bush may be little more than a spectator when it comes to this summer's immigration caravan.