20060613 jeff birnbaum
Commentator and Washington Post columnist Jeff Birnbaum - 

KAI RYSSDAL: The Senate's working on immigration reform this week. Bipartisan immigration reform, that is. A bill did pass last year but most Republicans didn't like it much. The package currently in the works puts border security first. Then a high-tech ID system for undocumented workers would kick win. Only after that might millions of illegal immigrants get a chance at legal status.

Once Congress went to the Democrats, speculation was it'd be easier for a deal to get done. But commentator Jeff Birnbaum says opposition to a key vote on Wednesday might come from a surprising source.


JEFF BIRNBAUM: The conventional wisdom is that, after years of frustration on the issue, President Bush could well get a new immigration law.



But for that, Bush will have to partner with a broad swath of the Democrats-in-charge on Capitol Hill.



The reason: Most of his fellow Republicans are none too keen about giving foreign workers the chance to become citizens just because they've lived here for a while. And that provision would be the heart of any comprehensive solution.



It turns out, though, that Democrats aren't all that eager to embrace the change. In fact, a large number of Democrats are likely to resist.



And here's why. Labor unions, a fundamental constituency of the Democratic Party, are deeply divided on the topic.



Luckily for Bush, two of the nation's largest and most influential unions — the Service Employees International Union and Unite Here, the hotel and sewing workers' union -- are eager to include a program that would allow foreigners to work temporarily in this country.



They envision eventual citizenship, too — a plan similar to one that Bush has advanced in the past. These unions, which tend to represent lower-paid workers, foresee a lot of future members in that expanding labor pool.



But almost every other union, including the big union federation, the AFL -CIO, does not like that proposal at all.



In fact, they oppose a so-called guest-worker program, worrying that the additional foreign workers would take away Americans' jobs, including those their members now hold.



They intend to fight such a program with all the strength they have. That leaves Democratic lawmakers with a difficult choice. Some will go with Bush, but others will go with the majority of unions.



And that could well prevent the president from winning on immigration this year.



RYSSDAL: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.