Now the real fight begins

Now begins the real fight over immigration policy — and a key test for the nation’s weakened president.

The Senate’s passage Thursday of a bill that could lead to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers is not yet cause for celebration among those who marched and waved flags in nationwide rallies this spring.

Nor does it guarantee a victory for President Bush, who asked the Republican-led Congress more than two years ago for a “comprehensive” bill with a guest-worker program and said in a recent nationwide address there should be some accommodation for otherwise law-abiding immigrants who snuck in years ago but now have jobs and families in this country.

“Now the time has come for the very active participation by the president,” said Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I believe the president will put a very heavy shoulder to the wheel.”

The Senate vote does mean Congress almost certainly won’t be sending Bush a hard-line, enforcement-only bill as a majority of the House of Representatives favored _ the concern that first sent many immigrant-rights advocates to the streets in protest. But lawmakers from both parties said it may be hard for the House to bend very much in a midterm election year marked by GOP political uncertainty and a growing rift between the president and fellow conservatives.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat and former Nebraska governor who prefers the House’s approach.

For many lawmakers now, the pressing questions include:

_ Will congressional Republicans, concerned about retaining their majority in the midst of an unpopular war, a flagging president and high gas prices, agree to any immigration compromise at all or punt the debate to another year?

_ Which party suffers more politically if Congress fails to act: the Republicans, who control Congress, or the Democrats, who could be cast as obstructionist?

_ What would be the implications of postponing a decision if Democrats manage to take control of either chamber come November?

“Because of the Senate’s actions, whatever Republican fantasies there were about getting a border-enforcement-only bill have gone out the window,” said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. At the same time, Berman acknowledged of House Republicans, “A reasonably comprehensive bill will cause a huge amount of anger in their conference.”

Weighing the difficulties, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called the prospects for a compromise by year’s end “a jump ball.” He predicted, though, that negotiators could find middle ground in a “temporary worker program without a path to citizenship, as well as a second chance for people who are already in the country living outside of the law.”

If the House and Senate are to find a middle ground this year, the debate through which they get there may revolve around the semantics of two words: “comprehensive” and “amnesty.”

For Bush and for Senate negotiators, the word “comprehensive” is code for a guest-worker program and legalization options for longtime undocumented workers, on top of border security and employer enforcement provisions.

House negotiators might argue that a bill with a limited guest-worker program and no citizenship or residency opportunities is comprehensive nonetheless. This week, House conservative leader Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., offered a legalization plan that would require undocumented workers to first return to their home country.

Across the board, lawmakers shun the word amnesty as something that failed in 1986. The question will be whether legalization and guest-worker programs being considered this year include enough hurdles to avoid the amnesty label, which opponents apply to any plan that puts undocumented residents on a straightforward path to U.S. citizenship.

“There is no support back home for amnesty,” said Pence, who heads the 100-plus-member Republican Study Group.

Senators favoring citizenship provisions hope their willingness to beef up border security and law-enforcement measures sweetens the pot for House Republicans.

“We have made major concessions to those who want to emphasize an enforcement approach,” Specter said. “Our leadership position as Republicans is on the line.”