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Specter backs proposal allowing immigrants to seek presidency

Mercury News | February 25, 2005
By Jim Puzzanghera

WASHINGTON -The new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Thursday that he supports a constitutional amendment allowing U.S. citizens born overseas to run for president, a boost for those hoping to open the White House door to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

``This is a country of immigrants, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is frequently referred to. There are many, many others,'' Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said about an amendment pushed by the committee's former chair, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. ``And I have a special affinity for the Hatch amendment because my father was an immigrant and would have made a great president.''

Although Specter called the proposed amendment a ``good idea,'' he said the committee's agenda is full with legislation to limit asbestos-related lawsuits and a potentially bruising partisan battle set to begin next week over some of President Bush's judicial nominees.

``It's in the back of my mind, but it's not going to come ahead of judges,'' he said.

Still, the clear support of Specter, whose father emigrated from Ukraine, helps keep the idea alive. Any constitutional amendment most likely would have to go through the Judiciary Committee, and Hatch's strong backing led him to hold the first congressional hearing on the proposal in October.

House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., has not indicated a position on the proposal but generally is reluctant to amend the Constitution, said his spokesman, Jeff Lungren.

Under the Constitution, only U.S.-born citizens are allowed to become president. The Founding Fathers inserted the provision because of fears that a wealthy European with allegiances to another country would try to take control of the fledgling United States, according to constitutional scholars.

A small, bipartisan group in Congress has been trying to change the provision, backed not just by supporters of the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger but also by families who have adopted children from abroad and want them to share in the American Dream of one day becoming president.

Hatch's proposal would allow anyone who has been a citizen for 20 years to serve as president. Schwarzenegger became a U.S. citizen in 1983. Hatch has not yet reintroduced his proposed amendment in the newly seated Congress. But two similar proposals have been reintroduced in the House of Representatives by lawmakers who have pressed for the change.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced a proposed amendment Jan. 4 and immediately got the backing of Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks. And Feb. 1, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, a longtime friend of Schwarzenegger's, reintroduced a bill he offered last year.

Schwarzenegger, who has been touted as a potential 2008 presidential or vice presidential candidate should the Constitution be changed, has said he supports the idea of an amendment but is focused on his job as governor.

First lady Maria Shriver told Vanity Fair magazine in its January issue that she ``absolutely'' believes that naturalized citizens should be allowed to become president, but dismissed the idea that her husband would be able to run.

``It is not going to happen,'' Shriver told the magazine. ``The process takes years, and this is as far as it goes.''

Amending the Constitution requires two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate, then approval by 38 of the 50 state legislatures.

A statewide Field Poll in October found that 36 percent of registered California voters supported amending the U.S. Constitution to allow foreign-born Americans to become president.

But that hasn't stopped Schwarzenegger supporters. The group ``Amend for Arnold,'' started by Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, a retired mutual-fund manager from Menlo Park, ran two TV ads last year urging support for a constitutional amendment.