WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has changed her tune about using Iraq war spending bills to provide temporary legal status for illegal farm workers.
She used to think it was a bad idea. Not anymore.
Next week, the full Senate is expected to consider an emergency spending bill that includes Feinstein's agricultural guest-worker plan. If it survives, the guest-worker package would offer temporary legal status to 1.35 million illegal immigrant farm workers.
"This is an emergency situation," Feinstein told Senate Appropriations Committee colleagues Thursday, adding that "agriculture needs a consistent workforce. Without it, they can't plant, they can't prune, they can't pick and they can't pack."
Feinstein's plan modifies a more ambitious package called AgJOBS. The original AgJOBS proposal would grant legal status to 1.5 million illegal immigrant farm workers. It would also put them on a path to receiving a green card and, in time, U.S. citizenship.
The revised plan grants legal status to fewer farm workers, nor would it put them on an automatic path toward either a green card or U.S. citizenship. After five years, the farm workers would revert to illegal status if they were still in the United States.
"This to me is a fair compromise, just to get something in place," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League. Cunha stressed that the proposal is a pilot program and temporary in nature.
Feinstein added that she considered it appropriate to include the controversial guest-worker plan as an amendment to a $193 billion emergency spending bill whose primary purpose is to fund the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other lawmakers disagree.
The ailing but still influential chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, 90-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., is among those opposed to Feinstein's maneuver.
Byrd warned Thursday that controversial Iraq war bill amendments would probably require at least 60 votes on the Senate floor, a high hurdle.
"No matter how one characterizes this enormous amendment, it still amounts to amnesty," Byrd said.
If the agricultural guest worker amendment ultimately fails this year, lawmakers could still try using it to build tactical momentum; for instance, by securing promises of action next year. Sometimes, this is why lawmakers introduce bills they know will lose in the short run.
Some lawmakers are already leery about adding extraneous provisions to war-funding bills, particularly on divisive immigration policies. In 2005, for instance, agricultural guest worker supporters fell seven votes short in efforts to include AgJOBS on previous Iraq war spending legislation.
"This is not the place for this bill," one unhappy senator said during the April 18, 2005 debate. "I believe it is a mistake to pass this bill on an emergency supplemental that is designed to provide help for our military, fighting in extraordinary circumstances."
That senator, as it happened, was Feinstein.
At the time, Feinstein voiced doubts about the wisdom of legalizing so many illegal immigrants. She has since become the Senate's biggest supporter of AgJobs, particularly since the political flameout of retiring Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho.
Craig joined Feinstein on Thursday as the Appropriations Committee approved the revised guest-worker amendment by a 17-12 margin. In 2005, though, they were on opposite sides, as Feinstein fought Craig's effort to include immigration provisions on the Iraq bill.
"The place to do these amendments is through the regular order, beginning in the immigration subcommittee of the (Senate) Judiciary Committee," Feinstein said then.
Feinstein's press secretary, Scott Gerber, explained Friday that "times have changed" and that "the agriculture crisis has deepened." As evidence, Feinstein's office circulated a photograph of a Sacramento Valley farmer lamenting the necessity of destroying her pear crop because of a farm worker shortage. The Western Growers Association further declared that Arizona and California farmers often need to hire more workers than they are able to find.
"This was the only opportunity, at a time when very few bills are moving," Gerber added.
Other lawmakers, too, are hopping on the Iraq war spending bill. The Senate version, for instance, now includes additional funding for low-income housing energy assistance, rural schools and firefighting, among other domestic programs.