WASHINGTON – House conservatives criticized President Bush, accused the Senate of fouling the air, said prisoners rather than illegal farm workers should pick America's crops and denounced the use of Mexican flags by protesters Thursday in a vehement attack on legislation to liberalize U.S. immigration laws.
"I say let the prisoners pick the fruits," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, one of more than a dozen Republicans who took turns condemning a Senate bill that offers an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants an opportunity for citizenship.
"Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter A," said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, referring to a guest worker provision in the Senate measure.
Their news conference took place across the Capitol from the Senate, where supporters and critics of the legislation seemed determined to heed admonitions from both Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to conduct a dignified, civilized debate.
The House has passed legislation to tighten border security, while the Senate approach also includes provisions to regulate the flow of temporary workers into the country and control the legal fate of millions of illegal immigrants already here. Bush has broadly endorsed the Senate approach, saying he wants a comprehensive bill.
It was the second day in a row that congressional Republicans aired their differences on an issue that directly affects the fastest growing segment of the electorate. Under Bush's leadership, the Republicans have made dramatic inroads among Hispanic voters, and party strategists fret that the immigration debate could jeopardize their gains.
On Wednesday, leading GOP senators disagreed whether the legislation amounted to amnesty.
There was no such debate at the news conference in the House, where not a word was spoken in defense of the Senate bill and even Bush was not spared criticism.
"I don't think he's concerned about alienating voters, he's not running for re-election," said Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado. He said Republicans could lose the House and Senate over the immigration issue, and he said of the president: "I wish he'd think about the party and of course I also wish he'd think about the country."
Referring to a wave of demonstrations in recent weeks, Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia said, "I say if you are here illegally and want to fly the Mexican flag, go to Mexico and wave the American flag."
King analyzed the issue in class terms.
"The elite class in America is becoming a ruling class and they've made enough money by hiring cheap illegal labor that they think they also have some kind of a right to cheap servants to manicure their nails and their lawn, for example.
"So this ruling class, this new ruling class of America, is expanding a servant class in America at the expense of the middle class of America, the blue collar of America that used to be able to punch a time clock, buy a modest house and raise their families. ... Those young people are cut out of this process."
Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and others said Republicans would pay a price in the midterm elections if they vote for anything like the Senate legislation. "Many of those who have stood for the Republican Party for the last decade are not only angry. They will be absent in November," he said.
Rohrabacher said Americans should be able to "smell the foul odor that's coming out of the U.S. Senate."
Asked a few moments later whether the same odor was emanating from the president, he said, "I have no comment."
Rohrabacher, King and others stood at a podium decorated with a bumper sticker reading "Say No to Amnesty," as the Senate slogged through a second suspenseless day of debate.
The only vote of the day came on a proposal by Frist for a study of the number and causes of deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border. It passed 94-0.
The more difficult choices lie ahead next week, when critics of the bill are expected to try to strip out the guest worker provision and roll back the provisions relating to 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said repeatedly he hopes to find a compromise that is more broadly acceptable than the legislation that cleared his committee over the objections of six Republicans.
"There's a movement afoot to find consensus," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who voted for the bill that cleared committee.
He said the president's statements "have been hugely helpful."