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Immigration: 2008's Sleeping Giant

Lost amid the Beltway buzz about the Valerie Plame leak investigation is the fact that two Republican senators with an eye on the 2008 GOP nomination are starting to talk publicly (and loudly) about their plans to reform America's immigration policy.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) sent out an e-mail Monday night detailing his commitment "to bring border security legislation to the Senate floor" by February. In the message, Frist asked people to go to his Web site and post messages "showing support for a tough border bill."  By last night, more than 940 messages had been posted on the Volunteer PAC site.

The next day Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) introduced four separate bills aimed at addressing the problem of border security and illegal immigration. "Immigration reform is an urgent national security priority," Hagel told the Associated Press.

Over the past several years, reform of the country's immigration system has become a flashpoint for the Republican Party's most conservative voters -- an influential voting bloc in any presidential primary process.  Conservatives were largely unmoved by the proposal put forward by the Bush administration earlier this month that would allow the 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States to work for six years in the country before they would be sent home.

With Bush's popularity sagging even among the conservative base, Frist and Hagel seem to be using immigration to not only distinguish themselves on what is likely to be a key issue in 2008 but also differentiate themselves from the policies of the president.

In his e-mail, Frist praised Bush for signing a bill to increase the number of border-patrol agents, calling it a "good step forward."  But Frist added, "With an estimated 11 million people living here undocumented, it's going to take more than just manpower."

The details of Hagel's immigration reform proposal differ sharply from the tenets outlined by the White House. Hagel would allow illegals who had been in the U.S. for five or more years to pay a $2,000 fine in order to apply for legal status.

It's not only potential GOP presidential candidates who are talking up immigration reform. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, under the leadership of chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), sent out an e-mail to more than 1 million supporters earlier this week asking them to fill out a "National Survey on Immigration Policy."

"I want to know where loyal Republicans like you stand on this critical issue," wrote Dole. "We need to move towards decisive action to address this growing challenge."

Meanwhile, immigration is shaping up as a key 2006 issue in several gubernatorial contests, most notably in California and Arizona.

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 27, 2005; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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