WASHINGTON – Immigration reform is back, but this time around no one is talking of grand compromises.
Republicans on Wednesday presented a large package of 15 enforcement-focused bills, many designed to shut off the flow of illegals. No provision in the package mimics the 2006 comprehensive immigration reform measures — proposed by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — that focused on allowing guest workers into the country.
The specific pieces of legislation deal with everything from completing the 700-mile border fence already in progress, establishing English as the national language, instituting tougher workplace enforcement rules, stripping local police agencies of funding if they support "sanctuary cities" and banning driver's licenses to illegals, something that tripped up Democratic presidential candidate and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton earlier this year as her state's governor initially supported the idea.
Leading the fight this time is Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has butted heads with the White House on numerous occasions on immigration reform, decrying President Bush's call for a guest worker program and legalization of the 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the U.S.
"One thing that is not offered here is amnesty," he said, using the word conservative opponents often employ disparagingly to describe the system proposed by Kennedy and McCain that would have let illegals get on a path to citizenship without returning to their home country or serving jail time.
Sessions said this time year, the White House needs to step up and help him and his GOP colleagues with this effort.
"Frankly, I think they've been more interested in increasing numbers and less interested in lawfulness. The administration can do better and should do better," he said, acknowledging that he has not yet reached out to administration officials.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former member of the Kennedy-McCain compromise group, also is suggesting a more hardline approach, introducing a bill that is sure to generate international controversy. Specter's bill would, according to the senator, "pressure foreign governments to take back their citizens who commit crimes of violence, who have been jailed and are subject to deportation."
Specter would prohibit the issuance of visas to the citizens of countries who do not take back these criminals, who after serving their required sentences can only be held for 180 days by immigration officials before being released into the general population. Specter is exploring options that might keep these people in prison until they can be deported and is looking at a possible "analogy to depraved sexual offenders" who can be detained longer on a "showing of danger to the community."
Many Republicans who sought out compromise like McCain's have said they got the message from their base — border security must come before any attempt to create a legal guest worker program.
Sessions said this new effort in no way "represents an attempt to embarrass" McCain. In fact, Sessions told reporters, "I intend to vigorously support Senator McCain. He's our nominee and I have great respect for him. We did not agree on the comprehensive plan. He has said he got the message — he realizes 'security first' is the way to go. So I think he'll be supportive of much of it."
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a top supporter of McCain and member of the Kennedy-McCain compromise group, had a different interpretation of what McCain supports.
"We need a temporary guest worker program. I think John will push for it," Graham told FOX News, adding that Sessions and his group "have got their own agenda with these bills and John has his own. ... His approach to the immigration issue will be what he's said for months: secure the border first, get a tamper-proof ID in place to control jobs, then move on to the other parts of the problem." Graham said he also wants border governors to certify their borders are secure.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are clearly pinning their hopes for comprehensive immigration reform on their party taking the White House in 2008.
"I don't think that that's going to get very far in the Senate. I think there's an increasing appreciation of the need for comprehensive reform and I expect we'll get to it in the next administration," Kennedy said of the package of proposals.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said the Democratic leadership has no plans to bring up these bills.
"Senator Reid continues to support comprehensive immigration reform legislation that is tough on people who break the law, fair to taxpayers and practical to implement," Manley told FOX News. "This falls far short of the solution America needs to strengthen border security, reunite families, create tough and smart workplace enforcement, and bring 12 million people out of the shadows of our society."
Manley noted that Reid tried twice in 2007 to bring up immigration reform, "but Senate Republicans and President Bush refused to work with us. The only way we're going to deal with it is through a Democratic president."
It is unclear how Republicans will get these 15 bills to the floor without Reid's support, but next week's budget process, Republican aides say, is a possible venue. Regardless, Sessions promised "interesting efforts," adding that, "There are ways to force votes on amendments."
"We're not ending immigration, but we're dealing with this unacceptable illegality that exists today that embarrasses us and has attracted millions of people who have attempted to enter our country illegally because they have the impression we don't care," Sessions said.
When asked about the prospect that the entire debate will be swallowed by the presidential campaign, Sessions asked, "What's wrong with asking people to declare their views in an election year? When did that become improper?"
But as one senior Senate Democratic leadership aide countered, "How in the world is this legislation going to help John McCain to court Latino voters? This just sealed the deal for Democrats nationwide."
"They (Republicans) can do whatever they want, they still have trouble on immigration," added Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., head of the Democrats' Senate re-election effort and a top Clinton supporter. "The bottom line (is) people want a solution on immigration."