Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- A less permissive tone on immigration was signaled in the Senate last Tuesday when a proposal to cut guest worker visas down to 200,000 from 350,000 was supported by a surprisingly one-sided vote of 80 to 17. The mood change was not influenced by a leader in either party or by a major interest group. For once, the Senate was moved by a think tank report.
Last Monday, the conservative Heritage Foundation released a paper by Robert Rector, its senior research fellow in domestic policy studies, that became an instant favorite on Capitol Hill. Rector warned that the administration-supported bill pending in the Senate would admit an unprecedented 103 million persons over the next 20 years. This, said Rector, "would transform the United States socially, economically and politically. Within two decades, the character of the nation would differ dramatically from what exists today." On Wednesday, Rector personally presented these views to a meeting of conservative Republican senators.

Rector's assessment shows the immigration measure is a hard bill to love, even for senators who have been supporting it. The paper led to overwhelming support of Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman's amendment cutting back 150,000 guest worker visas a year. While killer amendments to the bill have fallen short, the cause of liberalized immigration has lost rather than gained support, as the White House expected.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican floor manager, on Tuesday moved to kill the Bingaman amendment without further debate -- a routine leadership device for getting rid of amendments. But all the Democrats were backing Bingaman, with the exception of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and two others. Only 22 Republican senators voted for Specter's tabling motion. Eight of those Republicans, including Majority Leader Bill Frist and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, changed their votes when it became clear the amendment would pass.

Rector's updated analysis, based on the Bingaman amendment, downgraded the two-decade estimate for immigrants to approximately 66 million under the reform. That remains a total that boggles the imagination. As a result, critical analyses of other aspects of the bill are getting a focused reception in the Senate.

-- The bill supposedly would protect American workers by ensuring that new immigrants would not take away jobs. However, the bill's definition of "United States Worker" includes temporary foreign guest workers, so the protection is meaningless.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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