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Capital Disconnect

This column was written by Kate O'Beirne.

At the end of a week that saw a primetime push by President Bush for his top domestic priority for the year, conservative skeptics have gained new allies and ammunition. The House Republicans who favor an "enforcement first" policy received some reinforcements, and they weren't the National Guard. The majority of Senate Republicans have now voted against two of the principal reform provisions favored by the president. So it appears that only a minority of congressional Republicans support the "comprehensive" approach outlined on Monday evening. All the while, the Hill is buzzing about some unpleasant surprises in the details of both the president's plan and the Senate's Hagel-Martinez legislation. There is a slim chance that a slimmed-down proposal could win the support of the majority of the majority, but it doesn't seem likely.

On Tuesday, 33 Senate Republicans (and 7 Democrats) voted in favor of an amendment that made granting legal status to illegal aliens contingent on effectively securing the border — in other words, they voted against the "comprehensive" approach. The amendment failed, 55-40. On Wednesday, 31 Republicans supported an amendment to strip the provisions providing for "earned citizenship" (or "amnesty," in yahoo-speak). With a majority of the president's congressional majority now on record opposing his controversial election-year initiative, frustrated, nervous members are asking, "Why this issue? Why this year?"

Hill sources explain that Majority Leader Frist understood the Senate would be approving a bill that a majority of his own members opposed, but believed that his available alternative, no immigration-reform bill at all, was unacceptable. Needing only a bare majority, Speaker Hastert took the third option when the House passed its enforcement-only bill late last year. While the White House is banking on winning House approval making new border enforcement measures contingent on legalizing millions of illegals, House Republicans remain firmly opposed to any amnesty and are confident that Hastert will not permit a bill that a majority of his party opposes to reach the floor. A large number of House Republicans could support a well-regulated guest worker program, with a more secure border and a workable workplace enforcement program, but they have no confidence the president's recent commitment to serious enforcement measures matches their own.

The Senate's handiwork this week deserves far more attention than it has received, and if President Bush intends to contribute to the final product, his engagement is already overdue. Among the little-noticed provisions in the Senate bill is one that shatters the economic rationale for millions of new unskilled, affordable foreign workers. When a bill depends on Democratic votes for passage, the unions are empowered to transform the business community's demand for "cheap labor" into a guarantee that guest workers will be among the most costly labor in the workforce.

The bill extends Davis-Bacon "prevailing wage" provisions — typically the area's union wage that applies only to construction on federal projects under current law — to all occupations (e.g. roofers, carpenters, electricians, etc.) covered by Davis-Bacon. So guest workers (but not citizen workers) must be paid Davis-Bacon wage rates for jobs in the private sector if their occupation is covered by Davis-Bacon. Presumably because Senate Democrats' union bosses thought this provision too modest, an amendment by Senator Barack Obama, approved by voice vote, extended Davis-Bacon wages rates to all private work performed by guest workers, even if their occupations are not covered by Davis-Bacon.

Administration officials who have been briefing Hill Republicans on the details of the president's proposal to deploy the National Guard have made it clear that there is even less to the reinforcements than meets the eye. The White House estimates that the 6,000 National Guard troops, intended to help with backup duties in order to free up Border Patrol agents, will make only 500 additional agents available to apprehend and detain lawbreakers at the border. The White House adamantly insists that Guard troops take no role in law enforcement, even though, so long as they are under the command of their governors — as they will be under the president's proposal — they are allowed to do so. Republicans worry that when the Guard shows up for duty, Lou Dobbs' cameras won't be far behind, recording their impotence as they merely alert border agents to the whereabouts of entering illegal immigrants whom they must passively watch. "How's that for a television image this fall?" asks a disgusted congressional aide.

Kate O'Beirne is the author of" Women Who Make the World Worse: and How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports."

Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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