Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The bitter battle over the immigration bill has become a legislative minefield in this election year, though it's still unclear whether November will see any heavy political fallout as a result.

To put it mildly, this issue is a thorny wilderness, festering intra-party divisions and brewing voter backlashes. It could inflict additional wounds on George W. Bush's battle-scarred presidency, shrink the GOP's congressional Republican majority and, possibly, hurt some vulnerable Democrats.

Let's slice up some of these pitfalls.

Frankly, it's difficult to see how the House and Senate can agree on a compromise bill that can attract a majority in either chamber. Their two respective bills are seemingly opposed to one another.

The House wants beefed up, effective border enforcement only and no other reforms until we've prevented all illegals from crossing the Mexican-U.S. border, or at least significantly reduced their numbers.

The Senate generally wants that, plus other reforms, including a guest worker program that lets migrants go back and forth across the border to take jobs in the United States when available and would allow those who've been here several years to eventually become citizens after paying taxes, fines and meeting a number of other legal requirements.

Neither side is willing to give at this point, and leaders in both chambers say each other's bill would be a nonstarter with their members.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has a political rule on bringing bills to the floor: They must first be supported by a majority of the majority, which is a majority of Republicans. As of now, say party leaders, a majority does not exist and isn't likely to if a House-Senate conference produces a blend of the two bills that includes any citizenship provisions.

White House political strategist Karl Rove met Wednesday with House lawmakers to encourage some give in the their position, and the word coming out of the closed-door meeting was that he got "a cold reception."

This sets up a possible scenario in which the Republicans are unable to produce a bill that can win a majority of both houses and that, as much as anything, would drive Congress' dismal poll ratings even lower -- hurting the Republicans who are in charge of its legislative machinery and Bush, who would be seen as ineffectual in enacting his agenda.

Polls show strong support for the House's approach. But while that bill alone would satisfy the GOP's conservative base and a large portion of the general public, it could still come back to bite Republicans in this year's elections and beyond.

The reason: The large and fast-growing Hispanic electorate, who gave Bush nearly 40 percent of their vote, would be angered and activated as never before by a House bill that would turn illegal Hispanic workers into felons. Most of that vote would go to the Democrats this time, and that could topple some of the GOP's most vulnerable candidates in the fall.

What we have shaping up here is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't political conundrum from which there are few sure-fire options.

If conservative Republicans were to cave in to most of the elements in the Senate bill, it could risk alienating a significant portion of their already badly divided base.

If the GOP tried to go with an enforcement-only bill along the lines of what the House has passed, it would turn Hispanic voters against them for years to come.

If Congress does nothing this year about an issue that has been driven to the top of the agenda, an already angry electorate would have further reason to throw out a lot of marginal incumbents, which could threaten GOP control of Congress.

Still, this doesn't mean that a skillfully written House-Senate compromise couldn't thread the needle and appeal to enough lawmakers with a bill that is tough on enforcement now and includes long-term reforms in the years to come.

This is where some skillful political leadership is needed, something that is sorely lacking on both sides of this debate.

My guess is that the public is ready to support a more comprehensive reform that has some limited legal, card-carrying temp worker system and a tough-love, back-of-the-line citizenship road for illegals who have lived and worked here for years.

Americans want Congress to fix the problem of illegal immigration, and they will have little patience with lawmakers who say they tried but could not reach an agreement on a sensible, long-term solution.

I agree with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who says, "To do nothing is a political loser."


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.