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Democrats clash on immigration policy

Tensions in party rise to the surface

WASHINGTON -- As the Democratic Party prepares to take power on Capitol Hill in January, tensions are surfacing over the details of plans to overhaul the nation's immigration policies.

Statements by incoming members such as Claire McCaskill, the Democratic senator-elect from Missouri, could provide an early warning of the difficulties ahead.

In a September television spot, McCaskill sat at a kitchen table and looked directly into the camera. "Let me tell you what I believe in," she said. "No amnesty for illegal immigrants."

Democratic leaders presented a largely united front on immigration this year, providing crucial support for a measure that would have allowed illegal immigrants to gain citizenship -- a bill critics attacked as "amnesty."

Now, the citizenship provision is just one of several aspects of the complex debate that are being questioned by some members.

While party leaders insist that rewriting immigration law remains a priority, they acknowledge that building consensus on how to do that will be tricky. They must deal with competing camps within the party and address concerns raised by core constituencies -- hurdles that could block passage of a final bill.

McCaskill and a slew of incoming House Democrats took stances that, in the shorthand of campaign rhetoric, seemed more conservative on immigration issues than the positions staked out by the party's congressional stalwarts.

Some unions strongly object to Democratic support for guest worker programs that would not allow participants to gain citizenship. Party leaders worry that backing a bill that included a path to citizenship would alienate some blacks, who have traditionally competed with Hispanic immigrants for jobs. And the Democrats will have to contend with a newly energized left wing, which could push to do more for legal and illegal immigrants.

"Just because we have the majority doesn't mean we have enough votes for an immigration reform bill," said Representative Loretta Sanchez, Democrat of California.

One House Democratic strategist estimates that about half of the almost 30 seats that Democrats took from Republicans went to candidates who took conservative positions on immigration reform.

These newcomers include Representative-elect Heath Shuler of North Carolina, who "is against amnesty," said spokesman Andrew Whalen. "If there's friction with the party [on the issue], there's nothing we can do about it; his views really do reflect his district."

Persuading Shuler and similar Democrats to back the type of immigration bill the Senate passed this year will be difficult, particularly in cases where the lawmakers won by small margins and can expect tough 2008 reelection bids.

Many congressional Democrats earlier this year supported President Bush's vision for a policy revamp, which included tightened border security, a guest worker program, and a process to give millions of illegal immigrants legal status.

But Bush faced a revolt in his own party. House Republicans favored their own enforcement-only approach and skirted serious negotiations over a Senate bill that embraced Bush's views. The only major immigration bill to emerge from Congress calls for building 700 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico.

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