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Immigration impasse won't help the GOP

This Memorial Day finds the nation's capital consumed by the issue of immigration - a topic that reaches as deep into our history and values as any that could occupy our holiday thoughts.

The debate that unfolded in the Senate over the past two weeks tested notions of sovereignty, explored questions of national character, measured our idealism and tolerance - and carried major political implications for both parties and for America's relationships with its neighbors.

It is a worthy subject and, for the most part, was worthily explored, with almost all the lawmakers acknowledging the difficulty of the choices and the need for action.

Now the issue moves to another arena - one where the level of public scrutiny is much less and the opportunity for mischief-making much greater.

At some point soon, the House and Senate will be expected to name conferees to negotiate the vast differences between the bills passed by the two chambers. The chances of roadblocks being thrown in the path are abundant.

Congressional history is rich with examples of strong-willed senators and representatives battling fiercely over the final terms of legislation. These conference committee sessions can be long and brutal, and policy differences are compounded by the institutional jealousies involved. Veterans of Capitol Hill will tell you of conferences where the rivals almost came to blows over custody of the papers containing the final agreements.

Since 1995, when Republicans took control of both sides of the Capitol, the negotiating sessions often have been confined to GOP senators and representatives, with the Democrats locked out along with the press.

That arrangement has been reinforced by the "Hastert doctrine,'' the policy formally enunciated by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert that he will bring to the floor only bills that are supported by the majority of the Republican caucus. Because of that policy, bipartisan coalitions have become rarities in the House. The emphasis now is entirely on shaping bills in conference that most House Republicans can embrace.

In the case of the immigration bill, that may well spell doom for the kind of broad-based, comprehensive approach endorsed by President Bush and embodied in the Senate version. Conservatives in the House - and Hastert's top lieutenants - have staked out a position calling for immediate major steps to close the border with Mexico. As Bush requested, the Senate bill would link the tighter border enforcement to a new guest worker program, allowing immigrants to come in legally for a time to work available jobs, and create a procedure that permits longtime illegal immigrants to pay a fine and back taxes, learn English and then apply for citizenship.

An odd thing has happened. While the Senate was debating immigration and moving to give the president most of what he wants, the attitude of House Republicans has stiffened. If anything, more of them seem more determined than they were a month ago to shut the border - and do nothing else. They believe the public is with them.

Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of the House GOP, is symptomatic of the shift. A few months ago, Davis, who represents the affluent Washington, D.C., suburb of Fairfax County, was decrying fellow Republican Jerry Kilgore's tactic in attempting to use anti-illegal immigrant sentiment as a wedge issue in his losing campaign for governor.

Last week, Davis said that even his highly educated and financially comfortable constituents favor the House approach more than the Senate's.

"They want a tough bill,'' he said, adding that immigration has become "a hot issue'' for more than "the hard-right.''

As a campaign strategist, Davis said, he fears that an impasse over immigration "certainly doesn't help the Republican Congress.'' With voters already frustrated over Iraq, gasoline prices, and scandals in Washington, the climate for the midterm election is grim. "We need to change things, or it's going to be a long election night,'' Davis said.

For that reason, he threw out several hints that he hoped Hastert would bend his rule - and open the way for the House to "work its will'' on immigration with a coalition of most Democrats and a minority of Republicans.

But with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the principal author of the House bill, likely to lead the House negotiators, it's doubtful Davis will get his wish. And it's doubtful that Bush will get his bill.

David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at davidbroder@washpost.com. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.