2008 White House hopefuls face major vote on immigration reform

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) yesterday indicated he is leaning toward voting for the pending immigration reform bill — even though it is significantly different from his own legislation.

Frist told The Hill that he is “moving strongly” in the direction of voting in favor of the bill. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) appears to be the only Senate Republican eyeing the White House who will reject the measure.

Over the past several weeks, political observers have wondered how Frist would vote on a measure that has attracted criticism among many conservatives.

Frist introduced his own immigration bill in mid-March that focuses on border security and does not include President Bush’s guest-worker plan. Cloture on Frist’s bill failed, 36-62.

Frist is trying to strike a balance as a potential presidential candidate trying to cater to the conservative base and as the Senate leader trying to advance the Republican agenda.

The immigration reform bill is expected to pass in the Senate, but most believe the chances of a measure being signed into law this year are less than 50-50.

The House-passed bill is an enforcement-only measure, seeking to strengthen border security and cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants. Unlike the bipartisan Senate legislation, the House did not include any measures offering a path to citizenship or a guest-worker program.

Because the chance for a deal between the House and Senate appears slim, possible presidential hopefuls could be casting their last major vote of 2006 on immigration reform this week. And, depending on the elections, Republicans may not want to revisit the matter before 2008.

Immigration reform will likely be a major issue in the 2008 election, and the senators’ votes this week are expected to be scrutinized closely.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said that he will vote no. “It rewards illegal behavior,” he said in a short interview, emphasizing that the borders need to be secured first.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who played major roles in crafting the bill, will vote yes.

Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican from Kansas, told The Hill that he would vote for the immigration overhaul as long as no amendments are approved that would significantly expand the number of immigrants coming into the country or reduce the level of enforcement.

“I think good work has been done here in the Senate, and I would support it,” he said.

Top Democratic contender Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said, “We will have to see how it turns out,” referring to a number of amendments that still required a vote until the bill is ready for final passage.

Meanwhile, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D) said he would vote for the legislation to send it to conference with the House. “I would be inclined to vote on something that would go to a conference committee,” he said, but he pointed out that amendments can change the nature of the bill.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said, “I would vote for it.”

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) could not be reached for comment by press time.

The Hartford Courant this week reported that Dodd is seriously considering a run for the White House in 2008.

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