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GOP Strategy May Scuttle Bill on Immigration

September 17, 1996|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Despite broad bipartisan support for a crackdown on illegal immigration, legislation before Congress to do just that has become so ensnarled in election-year politics that its prospects for passage are in doubt.

Imperiling the measure is a risky GOP strategy partly aimed at denying President Clinton a signing ceremony in the weeks preceding the Nov. 5 election, lawmakers in both parties said.

Today, House and Senate lawmakers are to decide whether to include in final immigration legislation a controversial provision from the House version of the bill that would allow states to impose tuition on illegal immigrant students in public schools.

That would set up a confrontation with Senate Democrats and the White House that is unlikely to be resolved before Congress adjourns in a few weeks.

"This strategy is designed to pin down the president," said Michelle Davis, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). "He has done an excellent job of taking credit for things we pass. Not this time."

Indeed, officials with Republican Bob Dole's presidential campaign--frustrated by Clinton's embrace of many traditional GOP themes--are among those pushing that strategy for the immigration bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the congressional conference committee meeting on the bill today, called that strategy "extraordinarily flawed public policy." She said that the people of California, who have pressed the immigration issue, "will see right through it."

The House passed its immigration bill in March, 333-87. The Senate followed suit two months later, 97 to 3. With such lopsided votes, approval of new efforts to thwart illegal immigration once looked to many like a sure thing.

That was before Republicans lined up behind the tuition plan.

Toned down in recent weeks to gain support, the measure would enable states to start charging tuition for illegal immigrants enrolled in elementary school who want to proceed beyond the sixth grade. But illegal immigrant students in seventh grade or beyond could finish high school under the compromise.

Initially, the amendment authored by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) would have allowed states to ban illegal immigrant children from public schools.

Republican leaders, led by Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), are trying to get the public-schooling tuition plan in the immigration bill's final version.

Although such a measure would be expected to easily clear the House, Senate Democrats said that they have the votes to block it. And even if it reaches Clinton, he has threatened to veto any immigration bill that targets schoolchildren.

The veto threat has served to embolden some Republicans to press the proposal. GOP strategists hope that Clinton would refuse to sign an immigration bill containing the public-schooling proviso--thus losing the opportunity to take credit for a law dealing with an election-year controversy, as he did with welfare reform.

Last week, two key Republicans bolted from their party's strategy.

Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, the sponsor of the Senate's immigration bill, and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), his House counterpart, met with Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager, in an attempt to persuade the campaign to drop its insistence on the public-schooling amendment.

Simpson and Smith argued that Republicans gain no political points if the immigration bill stalls. But the Dole campaign rebuffed their argument.

House Republicans from California have given strong support to the bid to restrict the access of illegal immigrants to public schools. The concept was first broached in Proposition 187, the 1994 crackdown on illegal immigration approved by California voters.

But in coming days, congressional aides said, lawmakers may face the question of whether they would prefer an immigration bill without the schooling proviso or no new immigration law at all.

Other provisions in the immigration legislation--most of which enjoy broad support--include nearly doubling the number of Border Patrol agents, streamlining deportation procedures, increasing penalties for smugglers and document forgers and creating a pilot project to check the immigration status of new employees.

Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego) said that he is not willing to allow the illegal immigration bill to die just to preserve the public-schooling proviso. Although he supports restricting illegal immigrants in public schools, Bilbray has introduced an alternative proposal that would force the federal government to compensate states for the cost of educating illegal immigrant students.

Gallegly has refused to back down. He believes that Democrats will end their opposition at the eleventh hour if forced to decide between his proposal and no immigration law.

"This is a poker game," Gallegly said. "Is the president bluffing? I think he is. If the Democrats are willing to kill this immigration bill, they have to accept the responsibility for that."

Others are betting that the GOP strategy will backfire.

"The Republicans have taken a broadly bipartisan effort to reform immigration law and tried to make it partisan," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights group that supports legal immigration.

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