Lawmakers might add guest-worker plan to farm bill

WASHINGTON — Farmers, immigrants and their Capitol Hill allies are hoping to graft an agricultural guest-worker plan onto the multibillion-dollar farm bill.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein hasn't yet decided whether to push the controversial guest-worker measure when the Senate considers the farm bill next week. Behind the scenes, though, proponents are counting votes and lobbying furiously.

"Now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty, where real hard decisions have to be made," said Dan Haley, a lobbyist for the California Strawberry Commission and other farm groups. "We can't wait around."

Tactically, this is a very tough call. The decisions made in coming days will shape the $288 billion farm bill, the future of 1.5 million illegal immigrants and the immigration political landscape for months or years to come.

Haley insisted "we can eke out" a victory if the Senate votes on the guest-worker plan. Others have doubts; no one takes this fight for granted.

On Wednesday, for instance, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund electronically urged members to contact lawmakers in support of guest-worker revisions. The alert asserted that the Senate "is expected to vote" on the proposal. In reality, the guest-worker amendment remains in flux.

"I just don't know if the votes are there to pass it; you have to do the vote count," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., the chairman of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee. "The farm bill is a pretty complicated piece of legislation as it is."

The farm bill pays for food stamps and subsidizes cotton, rice, wheat and corn growers. This year's proposal includes record spending for fruits and vegetables.

The Agjobs bill offers legal status and possible U.S. citizenship for 1.5 million illegal immigrant farm workers. It also streamlines an existing guest-worker program.

With the help of lawmakers including Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, the Agjobs measure was folded into a larger immigration bill that collapsed in the Senate in June.

Realistically, Agjobs supporters must attach the bill to some other legislation that's likely to pass. The farm bill due for Senate debate next week is the most likely prospect.

Agjobs will need at least 60 votes to clear a filibuster. That's hard to get. Last week, another immigration-legalization bill failed 52-44 in the Senate.

Currently, Feinstein's guest-worker bill claims 30 co-sponsors. The number of supporters certainly exceeds that: A 2005 test vote failed 53-45, with two missing senators also accounted as supporters. The search for 60 votes, though, occurs in a complicated Capitol Hill environment.

Feinstein's chief Republican ally on Agjobs, Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, is politically enfeebled after being caught in a bathroom sex sting. Craig is now a lame duck and shunned by some of his Republican colleagues.

"If he loves the party, and he loves the Senate, the honorable thing to do is resign," Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, the party's chief fundraiser, said of Craig in October.

The Senate's farm bill itself, sprawling over 1,300 pages, reflects a coalition that could collapse under the Agjobs weight. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, for instance, is the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and a harsh critic of what he terms amnesty.

"Do we want to reward these folks here illegally, as the Agjobs amendment proposes to do?" Chambliss asked in 2005.

Other influential lawmakers crucial to the farm bill's passage, including Republican Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Charles Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, likewise opposed Agjobs in the past. The senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, is an Agjobs skeptic.

Their arguments could even prove persuasive among Agjobs supporters, if they conclude that immigration revisions endanger the farm bill. The argument that an amendment is poorly timed has been deployed against guest-worker plans previously.

Feinstein herself, for instance, warned in April 2005 that an emergency spending bill "was not the place" for an Agjobs amendment. At the time, she was skeptical of the guest-worker proposal, a position she later modified.