WASHINGTON — Despite deep divisions within its ranks, the Republican Party formally endorsed a guest-worker program Friday that would permit more workers from abroad to work legally and temporarily in the United States.
The vote by the Republican National Committee averted a potentially embarrassing setback for President Bush, who has called for a guest-worker program. The vote preempted an Arizona activist's resolution that argued that permitting guest workers would fuel more illegal immigration.
Bush has said a guest-worker plan must be a central element of the immigration law overhaul now moving through Congress. The Republican National Committee, the party's steering panel, typically acts in lock step with the White House -- particularly on topics such as immigration, which is emerging as a top-tier issue in this year's congressional elections and in states with growing numbers of Latino voters.
Bush aides and senior Republican strategists say that taking a hard-line stance against illegal immigration risks alienating Latino voters, just as California's 1994 campaign for Proposition 187, which GOP then-Gov. Pete Wilson supported, helped turn California into a Democrat-dominated state.
But the Arizona activist and national committee member, Randy Pullen, reminded his colleagues and a crowd of reporters that he represents the views of many rank-and-file Republicans -- as well as those of the House leadership, which has pushed legislation to strengthen border enforcement but has not touched on a guest-worker plan.
Letting workers from abroad take jobs legally "is not acceptable to my voters in Arizona," he said. "I have not yet heard a guest-worker program articulated that would possibly work."
Pullen withdrew his resolution Friday after the full committee voted almost unanimously to side with Bush, urged on by a series of speeches by committee members who said they or their relatives were immigrants.
"We as a party ought to stand united behind our president," said Lilly Nunez, a national committee member from Colorado.
Pullen was the only committee member to oppose the guest-worker proposal, though nine other members had initially signed onto his resolution, which warned that a guest-worker plan would "result in more illegal immigration and increased crime in our country."
Pullen told his fellow Republican National Committee members that he had received thousands of e-mails in support. He read one aloud, quoting the sender thanking him for "standing up for we little guys."
The national committee debate was unusual for a political body that typically sticks to the White House script. But it underscored the split within the GOP that has complicated matters for Bush's effort to fix growing immigration problems.
Cultural conservatives charge that illegal immigrants are taking U.S. jobs. But businesses, another key piece of the GOP donor base, rely on immigrant labor.
The Senate is expected to take up the issue next month, and the future of a guest-worker program is likely to dominate congressional negotiations on overhauling immigration laws.
The Friday vote signaled to lawmakers that drawing a hard line against a guest-worker plan risks putting them out of step with the party hierarchy. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told reporters that allowing workers from abroad to work legally in the U.S. was the only way to control the flow across the border.
"Without having a guest-worker program, you have an incomplete solution," Mehlman said. "If [opponents] don't believe that you need to have a way to deal with the economic magnet and think you're going to deal with illegal immigration, I think they're wrong."