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Will Immigration Muddy Waters for Supplemental?

As Capitol Police officers wrestled a bomb suspect to the ground Monday, Senate Republican leaders inside were trying to quell an intraparty scuffle over immigration. [IMGCAP(1)]

As of press time, no deal had been reached to keep the $80.6 billion supplemental Iraq war spending bill free of contentious immigration provisions during this week’s floor debate on the measure. But Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said talks between Frist’s office, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), and others were “very encouraging.”

“It’s important to get this supplemental done and not have it bogged down in discussions on extraneous issues,” Stevenson said.

Craig and Kyl are both contemplating amendments to add immigration-related measures to the supplemental, but their proposals would likely differ from the House-passed supplemental, which would require states to adopt tougher standards for obtaining a driver’s license and require the federal government to tighten rules on asylum seekers. The driver’s license provision has been linked to immigration because some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were easily able to obtain state-issued IDs in the United States, even though many were in the nation illegally or their visas had expired.

Because the House opened the can of worms on immigration legislation by adding those provisions to the supplemental, Craig is pushing to add a bill — known as AgJobs — that would make it easier for foreign nationals to get temporary visas to work on American farms.

Although Craig has 45 co-sponsors, House and Senate Republican leaders oppose the measure, and Frist pulled a bill on class-action lawsuits last summer chiefly to avoid having a vote on AgJobs. In the previous Congress, Craig’s bill garnered 62 co-sponsors. However, the majority of Craig’s supporters are Democrats.

“We’re just trying to get our bill heard,” said Craig spokesman Dan Whiting. Indeed, Craig would likely agree to forgo an AgJobs fight tied to the supplemental if Frist agreed to give Craig a vote on the issue later this year.

Kyl opposes the AgJobs bill and does not want the Senate to vote on it, but he supports some elements of the House-passed driver’s license provisions. Kyl, along with other supporters of stronger ID card laws, would rather have the Senate pass a “clean” supplemental and simply adopt immigration language similar to what the House passed during bicameral conference committee negotiations, a source close to the leadership talks said.

If that were to happen, the Senate fight over immigration provisions would not come until it was too late to amend the bill — since conference reports cannot be altered — and presumably, Republicans would be able to put significant pressure on Democrats to go along, under the assumption that the minority would not want to be seen as blocking all-important funding for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was unclear whether Kyl would offer a driver’s license amendment this week if Craig does not agree to give up on trying to add the AgJobs bill to the supplemental.

Indeed, Kyl spokesman Scot Montrey said Kyl has not yet signaled what he would do regarding any potential debate over immigration provisions. “We are watching how things go,” Montrey said.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of both AgJobs and a broader immigration reform measure with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has also been watching the issue closely.

“If the supplemental becomes about immigration, then we’re going to make sure our priorities are part of the conversation,” warned a Kennedy spokeswoman.

Other immigration issues could come out of the woodwork as well. Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), for instance, have a bill to extend more work visas to unskilled workers.

In the meantime, freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is likely to be a headache for appropriators and Republican leaders alike as he seeks to strip what he views as unnecessary spending from the war appropriations bill.

“His overall concern is that we live in a time when Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable, so we can’t afford to revert to old habits,” said Coburn spokesman John Hart. “People are using these bills to pass all sorts of non-emergency [projects] and extraneous items.”

Hart was mum on which projects Coburn might target, but a broad array of domestic projects already pepper the bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. Coburn could go after $15 million for flood prevention in Hawaii, a proposed $592 million for the U.S. embassy in Iraq, or a $500,000 wind energy project in the Dakotas, to name a few.

It was unclear whether Coburn would try to strip the provisions by amendment or use parliamentary procedures to object to their designation as “emergency” spending.

Of course, Coburn won’t be spearheading his effort alone. McCain’s office is compiling a list of “pork” projects that they deem unsuitable for an emergency war-spending bill.

Democrats also plan on offering a slew of amendments designed to highlight what they see as the Bush administration’s flawed strategy in Iraq and unwillingness to fully fund veterans’ health care.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) long ago told leaders she would try to raise veterans’ health care funding by $2 billion. Other Democrats will focus on trying to make sure that death benefits for soldiers’ families are not taxable.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is expected to offer an amendment taking aim at the faulty intelligence that led to the Bush administration’s incorrect assumption that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. And Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) may offer a proposal — targeted at Vice President Cheney’s old employer Halliburton — to clamp down on “war profiteering.”

Democrats are also expected to question the cost of the proposed U.S. embassy in Baghdad. President Bush requested $658 million for construction of the embassy, but Senate and House appropriators only approved $592 million. Even at that funding level, the 104-acre embassy would be the largest and most expensive U.S. compound in the world. Most new U.S. embassies comprise no more than 10 acres, and the most expensive to date were an embassy in Beijing in 2002, at $434 million, and a 1999 compound in Moscow for $352 million, a Democratic operative said.

Democrats contend that the Bush administration decided to designate the embassy construction funds as an “emergency” because the oversized price tag would have eaten up the bulk of the $900 million the State Department currently has slated for construction of 10 buildings around the world.

In an unrelated amendment, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) may offer a plan to extend milk subsidies for another two years.

Because, as Republicans suspect, Democrats are sensitive about being perceived as opposing money for U.S. troops, Tom Gavin, spokesman for Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), emphasized that the barrage of amendments is not intended to scuttle the bill. “There’s no effort to try and stop it,” Gavin said. “The point is to make it better.”

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