(Adds information on sanctions in 21st paragraph.)
Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The Republican presidential candidates clashed over how to treat millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S., after Newt Gingrich called for a “humane” policy that would allow those in the country for 25 years and with established family and community ties to remain.
The candidates also sparred over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, extending the USA Patriot Act, defense spending cuts, wars and terrorism during the two hour national security debate in Washington at DAR Constitution Hall, a short walk from the White House.
Former House Speaker Gingrich, enjoying a surge in the polls, said he was “prepared to take the heat” for advocating a policy that, while deporting recent illegal immigrants, would make an exception for those who came long ago and laid down roots. Many Republican primary voters regard any such exception as amnesty for lawbreakers.
Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann said Gingrich has a the wrong approach. “If I understood correctly, I think the speaker just said that would make 11 million people who are here illegally now legal,” she said.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said Gingrich’s proposal would encourage more illegal immigration.
“Look, amnesty is a magnet,” Romney said. “If people who come here illegally are going to get to stay” that will encourage more people to come illegally.
Gingrich said he was being realistic. “I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families,” he said.
In a debate that focused mostly on foreign policy, the question of immigration provided one of the starkest contrasts among the Republican presidential contenders.
Texas Governor Rick Perry pledged to seal the border within a year of taking office if he were elected, yet he also hinted at a more permissive approach to dealing with the illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
“There is a way that, after we secure that border, that you can have a process in place for individuals who are law- abiding citizens who have done only one thing -- as Newt says, 25 years ago or whatever that period of time was -- that you can put something in place that basically continues to keep those families together,” Perry said.
Perry himself ran into trouble on the immigration issue in a Sept. 22 debate, when he said that those who opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants -- a policy he has championed as governor -- don’t “have a heart.” His opponents, particularly Romney, excoriated him for the statement, and he ultimately retracted it.
A Bloomberg News poll released Nov. 15 found that 42 percent of likely Iowa caucus attendees said the Perry-signed Texas law allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in- state tuition rates would rule out their support.
The Republican candidates spent much of the debate criticizing Obama’s foreign policy, blaming him for Iran’s continued pursuit of a nuclear weapon and calling for aggressive action, from imposing crushing sanctions that risk higher oil prices to supporting an Israeli attack.
Businessman Herman Cain said he would support Israel in an attack on Iran if there if it was “clear what the mission was.” His support would also be conditioned on the “definition of success” of such an attack, he said.
“Replacing the regime before they get a nuclear weapon without a war beats replacing the regime with war, which beats allowing them to have a nuclear weapon,” said Gingrich, who has supported increased covert action.
Romney said sanctions on Iran, which were stepped up this week by Obama, should be tougher still even if it crippled Iran’s oil industry.
“I know it’s going to make gasoline more expensive,” he said. “There’s no price that is worth an Iranian nuclear weapon.”
Texas Representative Ron Paul criticized Cain’s willingness to assist Israel with an attack on Israel.
“If they want to bomb something, it’s their business and they should face their consequences,” Paul said. “Israel is quite capable of taking care of themselves.”
Romney vowed to take his first foreign trip as president to Israel “to show that we support them.”
The Obama administration this week expanded measures aimed at thwarting Iran’s nuclear program, targeting its banking system and oil industry to cut off foreign financing.
The measures, coordinated with sanctions by the U.K. and Canada, are in response to a Nov. 8 report by the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency which cited evidence pointing to clandestine nuclear weapons development activities by Iran.
Lifetime of Danger
Gingrich said that because of terrorists the U.S. must strengthen tools to detect and prevent threats because “all of us will be in danger for the rest of our lives.”
Those steps include extending the USA Patriot Act, which provides U.S. law enforcement with extra powers, he said.
“You want to use every tool you can possibly use to gather intelligence,” Gingrich said. “The dangers are literally that great.”
Paul quickly tangled with Gingrich, warning against giving up liberty in exchange for security. “You can still provide security without sacrificing our Bill of Rights,” he said.
Gingrich said he won’t “automatically” raise alarm over cuts to the defense budget. He said that there is “something profoundly wrong” with a defense procurement system that allows weapons to be developed for 15 to 20 years.
“It’s clear that there are some things you can do in defense that are less expensive,” Gingrich said.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also participated in the debate which was held a day after a congressional debt-reduction panel failed to reach agreement to reduce U.S. deficit.
The Defense Department will face $500 billion in automatic cuts if Congress does not pass an alternative. The automatic cuts would be added to about $450 billion in reductions already in the planning over the next decade.
Perry said that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta should resign in protest over the looming defense cuts while Romney accused Obama of having a “priority of spending us into bankruptcy.”
The failure of the supercommittee allows for $1 trillion in defense cuts “which just happens to equal the trillion dollars we’re putting into Obama-care,” Romney said, referring to the health care law supported by Obama.
The debate was hosted by CNN and two non-profit policy groups, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
--With assistance from Tony Capaccio and Gopal Ratnam in Washington. Editors: Steven Komarow, Terry Atlas
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Roxana Tiron in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org