DULUTH - U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was booed Saturday at the state Republican Convention for helping craft an agreement that would give illegal immigrants a pathway to American citizenship.
But about 1,200 delegates and alternates gave Gov. Sonny Perdue and Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson enthusiastic receptions, an apparent sign that the GOP faithful are ready to move past last month's bitter dispute between the two leaders that nearly forced the General Assembly into a special session.
Immigration dominated the two-day gathering at the Gwinnett Center, overshadowing what Perdue and Richardson, R-Hiram, had to say about a $142 million property tax cut pushed through the legislature by the speaker only to be vetoed by the governor.
Chambliss, who faces re-election next year, and fellow Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson were on the hot seat over their involvement in the negotiations that led to Thursday's announcement of a bipartisan deal on immigration reform between Senate leaders and President Bush.
GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and former Georgia congressman and U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich set the tone at the convention Friday by criticizing the agreement as granting amnesty to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.
Chambliss and Isakson disputed that assessment Saturday.
Isakson said the agreement would prohibit illegal immigrants from obtaining permission to live and work here until they complete a probationary period, pay a fine, learn English and get a job. In addition, they would not be eligible for welfare benefits, he said.
"This is truly an offense that is being treated as an offense," he said.
During a speech on the convention floor, Chambliss said the proposal would guarantee border security, an effective temporary worker program and a requirement that illegals return to their home countries before they can qualify for legal residency or citizenship, three principles that he and Isakson have been pushing for two years.
It was his reference to the temporary worker program that drew a chorus of boos and catcalls.
But some of those turned to applause moments later, when Chambliss defended the program as vital to the state's economy.
"Listen to any farmer in south Georgia," he said. "If we don't have a meaningful temporary worker program, we simply will be dependent on foreign imports for food products."
Chambliss urged delegates to keep an open mind as the debate goes forward. The bill is expected to hit the Senate floor this week.
"Please don't believe what you hear on radio and TV," he said. "Give us a chance to explain what's really in the bill."
Perdue and Richardson used their appearances before the delegates to explain their positions in the recent dispute over tax policy.
But the speaker took it one step further by announcing a new plan to require state agencies to submit "zero-base" budget proposals to the legislature every three years. Under the current system, each year's budget is based on what the agency received the year before.
"If we really believe in less government, we've got to change the tax system and change the spending system," Richardson said.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate, said he has always supported zero-base budgeting.
"It's a way to curb spending," Cagle said.
Richardson also repeated his vow to lead an effort to abolish property taxes in Georgia and replace the revenue with sales taxes.
He is the lead sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment that he hopes to put before Georgia voters next year.
Perdue, on the other hand, said he would continue pushing for his bill to eliminate state income taxes on Georgia seniors, which was shelved this year by House leaders.
During his speech to the convention, the governor said the state couldn't afford the $142 million tax cut backed by the House. For one thing, he said, the federal government has hit Georgia with a huge long-term bill to cover future obligations to health coverage for state retirees, a commitment expected to reach $20 billion over 30 years.
"I'm not going to go through this job for eight years and hand the tax bill to my children," Perdue said. "We're going to have to pay our way."
Republicans concluded the convention, the state GOP's first in Gwinnett in 14 years, by electing Sue Everhart of Cobb County party chairman for the next two years. Everhart, the only candidate in the race, becomes Georgia's first female Republican chair.