WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday to require Americans to show proof of citizenship in order to vote, and the Senate moved to build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border as Republicans sharpened attacks on illegal immigration before the midterm elections.
The 228-196 House vote on a new photo ID plan and the Senate's consideration of the fence were both part of a get-tough policy on illegal immigrants that Republicans have embraced after Congress' failure to agree on broader legislation that would set a path for undocumented workers to attain citizenship.
House GOP leaders have insisted that tighter borders and tougher laws must precede more comprehensive immigration changes. The House passed the fence bill last week and plans votes Thursday on other enforcement measures: to increase penalties for people building tunnels under the border, make it easier to detain and deport immigrant gang members and criminals and clarify the ability of state and local authorities to detain illegal immigrants.
Republican sponsors of the voter identification bill said it was a commonsense way to stop fraud at the polls. People need photo IDs to board planes, buy alcohol or cash checks, said Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Administration Committee. "This is not a new concept."
"This is what Americans want," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., "They want safe borders and they want safe ballots."
But Democrats assailed the legislation, saying it could hurt minorities, the poor and the elderly — groups that tend to vote Democratic — who might have trouble producing a photo identification.
"This bill is tantamount to a 21st century poll tax," said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "It will disenfranchise large number of legal voters."
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said he was initially denied a voter ID required under a Missouri state law because he doesn't have a driver's license and couldn't immediately produce a passport or birth certificate. His congressional ID card was not accepted.
A Missouri court earlier this month struck down the state law, and on Tuesday a state superior court judge in Georgia ruled that that state's law requiring a photo ID was an unconstitutional condition for voting.
The bill would require everyone to present a photo ID before voting in federal elections by 2008. By 2010 voters would have to have photo IDs that certified they were citizens. In response to criticism that this would be a burden for the poor, the bill stipulates that states must provide the identification cards free of charge to those who can't afford them.
The Senate, meanwhile, voted Wednesday to take up a bill to build a 700-mile fence along one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Action on the fence, which could cost billions of dollars, comes four months after the Senate approved legislation that, along with tightening border security, created a guest worker program and outlined how people in the country illegally could work toward legal status and eventual citizenship.
President Bush has supported this broader approach, but it met strong resistance in the House, where opponents said it was tantamount to amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"While I've made it clear that I prefer a comprehensive solution, I have always said we need an enforcement-first approach to immigration reform," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "Not enforcement only, but enforcement first."
Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada countered, "We can build the tallest fence in the world and it won't fix our broken immigration system." To do that, he said, "we need the kind of comprehensive reform that the Senate passed earlier this year."
The current bill wouldn't provide funding to cover costs of the fencing and other barriers aimed at preventing illegal entry. About $1 billion for the fencing is likely to be included in a bill for the Department of Homeland Security that Congress is expected to approve before its scheduled adjournment next week for the elections.
Also on Wednesday, a bipartisan task force recommended that Congress provide a path to legal status for immigrants who can demonstrate steady employment, knowledge of English and payment of taxes and who pass a background security check.
The panel, chaired by Spencer Abraham, former Republican senator from Michigan and energy secretary, and Lee Hamilton, former Democratic representative from Indiana and chair of the 9/11 Commission, also urged new verification mechanisms to assist employers in hiring only authorized workers.