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Lott Wades Into Immigration Debate

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) jumped feet first into the immigration debate Wednesday, throwing his substantial support behind the bipartisan comprehensive reform deal and calling on President Bush to take a more active role in persuading the public and uneasy lawmakers to back the bill.

While Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have both endorsed the legislative process now under way in the Senate to pass a bill, Lott is the highest-ranking member of either party’s leadership to support the controversial deal, which was cut late last week.

Although both parties’ leadership will include talking points and other information on the issue in their Members’ packets for the Memorial Day recess, neither Republicans nor Democrats are expected to make immigration a top party priority during the break.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush is supportive of the Senate’s efforts and is expected to address the issue in the coming days.

“The president has long been an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and has led the way to a bill that will ensure stronger borders and interior enforcement, as well as provide for a temporary worker program that allows for people to come and fill jobs that Americans aren’t filling,” Perino said. “The bill has moved right since last year and he will continue to push for a comprehensive immigration bill. You can expect to hear from the president about this important issue in the coming days.”

Lott said Wednesday that he decided to take a more active role in pushing the deal after it became clear that misunderstandings of what the bill will do and political squeamishness on the part of many of his colleagues convinced him the Senate could lose its best chance to reform the system.

For instance, Lott noted that he spent part of last Thursday fielding calls to his office on the bill, most of which were hostile. According to Lott, he spent some 15 minutes discussing the deal with a voter from California, going over his specific concerns and attempting to correct misconceptions the man had. “Now here’s the problem. I can’t talk to everyone in America for 15 minutes” explaining the bill, Lott said.

According to Senate Republican Conference Chairman Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) — one of the principal negotiators of the deal — Lott made an “impassioned” speech during a Wednesday morning meeting of the Conference, urging Members to ignore outside groups opposing the bill and arguing that given the strength of opposition from the right and left, the Senate may be on the right track.

“We’ve got the right-wing bloggers beating it up and the left-wing bloggers beating it up. Maybe we found the sweet spot,” Lott said.

Lott argued that while he is unhappy with a number of things in the deal, “This is our last best chance” to pass a bill and said that political considerations should be put aside by lawmakers.

“If you’ve always got your finger up in the air … trying to figure out partisan politics, you’ll never get anything done,” he said, adding, “This is a big issue. Have we no courage at all?”

Lott also said that he has pressed Bush during a meeting with the president this week to take up the issue in public and support the bipartisan deal in the Senate. According to Lott, backing from the White House could help stiffen the spines of any Republican Members wary of coming out on the wrong side of the issue politically. A presidential public relations push could help better inform the public of what is in the bill, Lott argued, and combined with a warning to Democrats on what is unacceptable, it could help quell conservative opposition.

Specifically, Lott referred to growing concerns among some Republicans that House Democrats will draft a drastically more liberal measure that does not include key temporary worker provisions, strengthened border control language and a tempered approach to handling the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

To help ease conservative nerves, Lott urged Bush to “tell Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi ‘If you come up with something bad, I will veto it,’” he said.

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