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Row stalls defense and homeland bills

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Two key must-pass defense and homeland security bills are being blocked in a row between Republican lawmakers over border and immigration security measures.

The homeland security appropriation bill and the defense authorization bill are among the handful of pieces of legislation that lawmakers had hoped to complete this week before heading home for the elections. Now both are stalled because GOP House leaders want to include a series of measures passed in their chamber designed to strengthen border security and toughen immigration enforcement.

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Democrats charged the Republicans were playing politics with vital legislation and accused House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., of "Soviet"-style tactics.

Hastert's office did not return several calls requesting comment.

The half dozen or so measures slated for inclusion in the homeland security bill all grow out of the series of field hearings GOP committee chairs held over the summer, many in districts facing tight races this November.

"I think there are some things that should be in that bill," Hastert told a press briefing Tuesday, "Things that we think are commonsense things that ought to happen. But we have problems with the Senate."

The provisions include language that would empower state and local police forces to investigate, arrest, detain, or transfer to federal custody anyone found in the country illegally or in violation of their immigration status; a bill that would make it a crime to tunnel under the border; and other legislation intended to make it easier to deport or deny entry to illegal immigrant gang members.

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House leaders also reportedly want changes to language in the homeland security bill that would move back by 19 months a deadline for the introduction of stricter entry requirement for U.S. and Canadian citizens on the border.

On the defense bill, House leaders want to include an anti-gang crime provision, and legislation toughening security for federal judges, which includes a provision for the carrying of concealed firearms.

But the measures in question are controversial, and most have not passed or even been debated by the Senate.

Republican Senators -- Arlen Specter, R-Penn., on the homeland security bill and John Warner, R-Va., on the defense bill -- are blocking the effort to them, saying it runs counter to procedural traditions and jeopardizes bipartisanship.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Warner voices his "strong objection" to "the desire of a number of colleagues, almost all non-members of the defense committees, to have the conferees agree to include in the conference report nine or more bills all of which ... are 'out-of-scope'," meaning they are not germane to the underlying substance of the bill.

He says that at least three Republican members of the House-Senate conference committee considering the defense bill would refuse to sign onto legislation that included such measures, which means there would not be enough votes to pass the legislation out of conference and on for a final vote in both chambers.

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Specter, who wrote to Frist, Hastert and the two chairmen of the separate committee which Monday night voted to approve the homeland security appropriations bill, voiced "grave concern" about "altering an already-approved conference report," and likewise threatened to remove his signature if changes were made.

Without his signature, an amended bill would not get to the floor.

Angry Democrats lashed Hastert for trying to change the outcome of votes in the conference committee he did not like. "What is this, the Soviet Parliament?" asked ranking House Appropriations Committee member David Obey, D-Wisc., accusing the leadership of making "decisions behind closed doors, regardless of the rules."

Immigration advocates charge the provisions are designed mainly to allow Republicans to gain an election advantage with their base by showing their toughness on immigration.

"These enforcement-only bills will do nothing to enhance border security and will not move us one inch closer to fixing our broken immigration system," said the American Immigration Lawyers' Association in a statement.

The group said that using local police to track down illegal immigrants would "only drive (them) further underground," and that using the defense and homeland security bills in this way "circumvents the legislative process on an issue of critical national importance."

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