Published Sunday, January 28, 2007
FLORIDA'S MARTINEZ A LEADER
Support Grows for Immigration Plan
By Cory Reiss
Ledger Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The buzz around the Republican National Committee was that Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida would face a challenge to his election as general chairman because he wants to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. That made headlines. But when a Jan. 12 voice vote of the 168-member RNC rolled around, the nays could be counted on one hand.
The skimpy protest among the party's activist elite begs a question: How deep is the animosity among Republicans toward comprehensive immigration reform, and where does the issue stand on Republicans' priority list?
Republicans have been wrestling with that rift throughout President Bush's tenure. With a Democrat-controlled Congress more sympathetic to Bush's renewed call for comprehensive reform, which he made in his State of the Union address last week, Republicans face a decision about bridging this internal divide or baring it for the 2008 elections.
"I think it says a huge amount," Martinez, a native of Cuba who is now the face of the GOP, said of the size of the no vote. "The vitriolic opposition to any comprehensive immigration reform - that's not mainstream Republicanism, I don't think."
The Iraq war overshadowed much of Bush's State of the Union speech last week, but he focused on domestic policy in four areas: health insurance, energy, the budget and immigration. Of those proposals, conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill says his best chance for success under a Democrat-controlled Congress is with immigration, but members of his own party have been the problem.
"Extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America - with laws that are fair and borders that are secure," Bush said.
Republican hardliners in the House killed legislation in line with Bush's proposals last year, after the Senate passed it, and approved a rival enforcement-only bill. Those House Republicans say they have lost momentum and numbers, with defeat in November of key supporters.
"Now we are completely in the defensive mode again," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who led the anti-"amnesty" charge.
Still, opponents of the Bush plan said the minor protest at the RNC was a positive sign, given the pressure on committee members to unanimously support the president's choice for the job.
"I'm surprised we got any no's at all," said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of the group English First and master of the web site stopmartinez.com.
THROUGH THE 'WILDERNESS'
Republicans in Florida, a state with such a mix of languages that Tancredo late last year compared Miami to a third-world country, reflect the party divisions.
Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., said for example that she doesn't buy the definition of "amnesty" offered by Bush and Martinez, who propose a fine on some 12 million illegal immigrants for breaking U.S. law and thus argue they do not support amnesty. But Brown-Waite said that as far as this issue is concerned, Bush is better off with Democrats in control.
"Unfortunately, I do think he will succeed with Democrats, who support a liberal immigration policy," she said.
Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the third-ranking Republican in the House, has supported giving illegal immigrants legal status and the opportunity for citizenship under strict conditions. But he is treading lightly on that as he tries to help Republicans regroup for the next elections.
"I see a way through the wilderness on immigration," Putnam said. "The thing about immigration is it's not really a partisan issue."
That's true to some extent. House Republicans against Bush's plan said they are now counting on the fiscally conservative, mostly Southern Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition to side with them. Many of those members have opposed the route to citizenship. Democrats won the House with considerable help from Blue Dog victories, and those freshmen will feel pressure from both sides. Still, the coalition chairman, Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, sides with Bush.
"I think it's an area we could probably find agreement on," Boyd said.
An immigration bill co-authored by Martinez, which included giving legal status to illegal immigrants, passed the Senate last year, 62-36.
House Republican leaders, minding the vocal opposition in their ranks, killed it. Some members on both sides say that an immigration bill targeting agriculture workers, also co-sponsored by Martinez, could provide a middle ground and a first step if a broader bill proves unreachable.
Now Democrats are pressuring Bush to lean on congressional Republicans as maneuvering begins on the next reform bills."The only way we're going to get things done is if the president steps up to the plate and stands up to the right wing of his party," said an aide to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader.
ASSIMILATE POR FAVOR
Polls on immigration last year suggested that the majority of Americans don't think border security is strong enough. But immigration tended to rank low on the voters' priority list before the election.
Several polls showed strong majorities in favor of giving illegal immigrants legal status and a route to citizenship.
With Republicans plotting a way back to the majority, immigration could be a fork in the road.
Bush is making a play for Latino voters by tapping Martinez, who routinely gives interviews in Spanish, to lead.
Bush is reaching out to Republican nay-sayers as well. In his State of the Union message, he highlighted his administration's crackdown on employers and pledged border enforcement.
"We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals," Bush said. "We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty."
People on both sides said they support Bush's call for assimilation.
"It's really important that people...assimilate into the American way of life," said Martinez, who told the RNC that his journey from Cuban immigrant to lawyer and U.S. senator epitomizes the American dream. "That's what I did."