Frist Blocks Craig’s Immigration Measure

Posted July 9, 2004 at 6:12pm

It’s rare that Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) finds himself on the wrong end of bullying tactics by the Republican leadership — but that’s exactly what happened last week during the Senate’s consideration of a class-action litigation bill.

Craig’s amendment to provide foreign agricultural workers with easier access to temporary work visas was one of the top targets of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) effort to block all amendments from being offered to the class-action measure.

While Frist ostensibly used procedural tactics to block a slew of Democratic “message” amendments, Frist’s office told Democrats in a meeting last week that they most strongly objected to having votes on Craig’s immigration proposal, known as “AGJobs,” according to a Senate Democratic aide who attended the meeting. They said Frist’s office also strongly opposed a Democratic proposal to allow the reimportation of prescription drugs, the aide said.

After finding out that Frist had “filled the amendment tree” — effectively blocking any Senator in either party from offering an amendment to the bill — an exasperated Craig went to the Senate floor to complain.

“There is a strong effort on the part of my leadership to block my effort in coming to the floor with a strongly developed, bipartisan piece of legislation,” said Craig. “I surely thought the underlying bill, with 60-plus cosponsors and my amendment with 63, ought to be something that can come together. Apparently, it can’t, or it won’t.”

Despite the setback, Craig said he would press to have his bill considered by the Senate sometime this year, including as an amendment to other legislation that may come up.

“We’re going to have a vote on this this year if I have my way,” said Craig.

Craig said he told Frist nearly a month ago that he would try to work around the leadership’s reluctance to take up AGJobs by leveraging his filibuster-proof majority of 63 cosponsors, most of whom are Democrats.

“I’ve drawn the conclusion that I’ve got to push the issue, and I’ve told the leader I’m looking for opportunities to push the issue,” Craig said.

Frist said Craig’s position was untenable given the limited amount of time left in the 108th Congress and the complexity and contentiousness that surrounds immigration issues.

“On just about all these amendments, people have said that at sometime in the next 30 days they’re going to have to be able to have their bill fully considered and debated and voted on. I think they’re grabbing at thin air,” Frist told Roll Call in response to a question about Craig’s efforts. “To take issues that are even bigger than class action and try to address those as amendments is absurd. It can’t be done.”

Frist also told Craig that Senate Republican leaders would rather wait and deal with a comprehensive immigration bill next year.

But Craig said the time is ripe this year for doing one of the biggest pieces of the immigration puzzle. And he’s not alone.

“We’ve tried so often to do a comprehensive [immigration bill] and failed,” said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), an ardent supporter of AGJobs. “I’m for doing it now.”

Even though Craig has the support of 26 Senate Republicans, including Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), it’s another member of the Senate GOP leadership — Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) — who is the principal opponent of Craig’s bill, Republican and Democratic aides said.

Opponents, such as Kyl and Craig’s home-state colleague Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), argue that Craig’s bill might unduly reward illegal immigrants by giving them a direct path to permanent residency.

“Larry believes this does not provide amnesty, but whatever word you use, I’m concerned about those who come to this country illegally getting in line ahead of those who stayed home and tried to get in legally,” Crapo said.

Kyl’s office declined to comment on the record.

The AGJobs bill would allow unauthorized agricultural workers already working in the United States to apply for temporary-resident status if they can prove they have worked 100 or more days in a 12-month period during the 18-months preceding Aug. 31, 2003. Once these workers have temporary work visas, they would be able to seek permanent-resident status if they can prove by August 2009 that they worked at least 360 days in agricultural employment over six years.

Craig said the bill is desperately needed to help agricultural firms replenish work forces that have been battered by international events.

“In a post-9/11 environment, the problem of agricultural workers grew increasingly worse as we tightened the flow back and forth across the borders,” said Craig. “The ability to come here and work and go back home has gotten too difficult.”