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Archive for Sunday, June 25, 2006

GOP rejects Texas take on immigration

June 25, 2006

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— The story line of the week was "Republicans in Retreat," as major pieces of President Bush's legislative program hit roadblocks on Capitol Hill.

The subtext was a largely unexamined cultural-political gap between the president and important parts of his core constituency, a rift that only now in his sixth year in office is becoming evident.

First, a quick summary of what happened. On Tuesday morning, House Republican leaders met with Speaker Dennis Hastert to assess the prospects for immigration reform. Widely different bills had passed in the House and Senate, and the normal procedure would be to appoint conferees to negotiate a possible compromise.

But in the leadership meeting, the view that emerged was that the House GOP membership would tolerate no deviation from the original House position - close the border with Mexico now, and only later consider a guest worker program or possible citizenship for some of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in this country.

The Senate approach - linking all three of those steps in a single package - was a nonstarter, the meeting decided. So instead of naming conferees, the House leaders ordered up a new round of regional hearings - a time-killing stall that may well doom the chances of any action this year on Bush' No. 1 domestic policy proposal.

The next day, Wednesday, the same House leaders were caught by surprise by a backbench rebellion against extension of the Voting Rights Act. This legislation, endorsed by the president and thought to be relatively uncontroversial, was blocked by a combination of Southern members eager to free their states from the regulatory supervision of the Justice Department and a more geographically diverse group of conservatives who objected to the law's continued mandating of bilingual ballots in areas with large numbers of foreign-born voters.

Their contention: All citizens eligible to vote ought to be able to handle ballots in English. Uncertain they could muster the votes for the original bill, the House leaders pulled it from the agenda.

Democrats were quick to deride the GOP, arguing that the impasse on these issues, after last year's failure of the Bush effort to reform Social Security, would leave this Republican Congress with a miserable record of accomplishments.

The one saving grace for Republicans has been their success in extending many of the Bush tax cuts. But even in this area, they have been forced to back off. The Senate blocked permanent repeal of the estate tax - or, as the Republicans prefer, "the death tax" - and House tax-writers, acknowledging reality, offered a compromise that would retain but reduce that levy.

All of this dampened the mood of the White House. What few in that building want to acknowledge, however, is that their viewpoint is several degrees off from that of many of their most loyal congressional supporters.

The difference has been exposed by the debate over immigration, which at bottom, is a struggle over America's demographic and cultural future. If you talk to members of Congress of both parties, as I have been doing, what you hear over and over is that their constituents have been rattled by the appearance in their communities - especially in small towns, rural and suburban areas - of newcomers speaking a different language (Spanish) and living in separate enclaves. The newcomers are changing job markets and, particularly, the makeup of school classes - a disconcerting development for many of the residents already there.

That is why you have the resistance in the House to a permissive immigration bill and why the "English only" ballot provision attracted support.

For Bush and others like Karl Rove, this is an alien sentiment - for a simple reason. They are Texans, and Texas is different. Historically and culturally, it has been part of Mexico. Though it fought to free itself of Mexican rule, it has never regarded Mexicans as strangers. Mexican-Americans have been part of the makeup of Texas, not always treated well, but never excluded. They have held elective office for years and increasingly have been wooed by both parties.

When he was governor and running for president, Bush's response to the language issue was "English-Plus," suggesting a reciprocal obligation for immigrants to learn English and Americans to learn a second language.

Bush's approach to immigration and voting rights legislation has been rooted in his own experience in Texas. And Rove's vision of a Republican future built on increasing the party's share of the growing Hispanic vote has the same origin.

But, as they are learning, the Texas perspective is not that widely shared in the modern GOP.

- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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