Congress moves on scaled-back immigration agenda

Friday, September 29th 2006, 6:21 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ As Congress heads for the exits to campaign, Republicans are maneuvering to pass a pre-election immigration agenda that falls short of their get-tough rhetoric but is enough, they hope, to satisfy voters upset about illegal immigrants.

The House and Senate are trying to speed construction of 700 miles of fencing along the nation's southern border aimed at keeping Latin Americans and criminals from entering the country illegally.

A compromise House-Senate homeland security funding bill that contains $1.2 billion to begin building the fences was to come before the House on Friday, with Senate action possible later in the day.

Meanwhile, debate continues in the Senate on a bill setting the goals and timetable for constructing the fences. It's not a sure thing that the House would have enough time to vote on minor Senate changes and send the bill to President Bush before lawmakers recess until after the Nov. 7 elections.

Construction of the border fence is the single significant accomplishment on the hot-button immigration issue that has consumed so much of Congress' attention this year.

While the fence idea is moving forward, the rest of a September House agenda featuring legislation on deporting gang members and empowering local police to arrest illegal immigrants has fallen by the wayside.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., blocked moves by House leaders to add additional immigration-related measures to the homeland security bill on the theory that piecemeal advances would drain momentum from the Senate's drive to pass a more comprehensive immigration overhaul.

The Senate passed a far-reaching immigration bill four months ago that combined steps toward tougher border enforcement with new guest worker programs and a controversial plan to give illegal immigrants already in the United States an eventual chance at citizenship.

The House approved an enforcement-focused bill that included the fence and other tough measures aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.

Hard feelings on the immigration issues and on two other items has held up the $34.8 billion homeland security spending bill for days, even though House-Senate negotiators reached a deal Monday night.

The bill includes language _ opposed by House leaders _ to relax a ban on importing prescription drugs from Canada and potentially delaying a 2007 deadline to require passports or other tamperproof identification from all who enter the United States.

Homeland Security would enforce both issues. The department's Customs agents would be prohibited from seizing up to 90-day supplies of prescribed medicines being brought into the U.S. from Canada. That provision has angered the pharmaceutical industry, which charges more for domestically purchased medications.

Additionally, Homeland Security may have to push back its Dec. 31, 2007, deadline on its secure ID program, a border security crackdown urged by the 9/11 Commission.

That program would require all travelers _ including Americans _ to show passports or an alternative secure ID card when entering the United States by sea or over land borders. Currently, travelers may show a drivers' license and a birth certificate _ both of which can be easily falsified _ to enter the country from Canada and Mexico.

An estimated 20 percent of Americans have passports, and many people have balked at the $97 pricetag for obtaining one.

The Homeland Security and State departments are trying to design a cheaper tamperproof alternative, known as the PASS card, for about $50. But border-state lawmakers are skeptical that the cards or the technology to read them will be available by next year's deadline.

Aides to the negotiators said the spending bill would push back the deadline to June 1, 2009, unless Homeland Security is able to get the technology up and running sooner. Additionally, the program would have to be certified by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.

The homeland security bill also includes plans to:

_Overhaul the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give its director a direct line to the president during catastrophes and remerge disaster preparedness planning with response missions, which was recommended in the aftermath of the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina last year.

_Give the Homeland Security Department authority to shut down chemical plants that fail to meet security standards.

_Buy nuclear detectors to scan shipping cargo and hire more Coast Guard inspectors and Customs agents at seaports.