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Thursday, September 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Amendment would drop requirement that president be U.S.-born

By Jim Puzzanghera
Knight Ridder Newspapers

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WASHINGTON — Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County, Calif., Republican and longtime friend of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, introduced a constitutional amendment yesterday to allow foreign-born Americans who have been citizens for 20 years to run for president.

Schwarzenegger, who became a citizen in 1983, conveniently makes that cutoff. Now there are proposals by Republicans in both the GOP-controlled U.S. House and Senate, which could make the phrase "President Schwarzenegger" more of a possibility, if still a long shot.

"There's a number of people I know whose career opportunities would be expanded by this constitutional amendment," Rohrabacher said, mentioning Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Canadian-born Democrat, and House Intelligence Committee Chair Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who was born in the Netherlands. "One of them might be from Austria."

It's that Austrian birth certificate that makes Schwarzenegger, 57, ineligible to become president, despite holding a job that has been a launching pad for many presidential runs.

Fearful of the potential influence of foreign powers, America's founding fathers included a provision in the U.S. Constitution requiring that a president be born in the United States. But some in both parties think the restriction is outdated.

So does Schwarzenegger.

"The governor's indicated he's supportive of the concept," said his press secretary, Margita Thompson. But Schwarzenegger is "100 percent focused on California" and has not thought of running for president, she said.

In a radio interview last month, Schwarzenegger said it was time for a national discussion of the issue.

"This is something that the people of America ought to debate," he told syndicated talk-show host Tony Snow on Aug. 12. "Of course I think that if you have contributed to the country and if people have confidence in you that you should be able to do that, to run for high office."

The debate may be coming.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced a similar amendment in July 2003 — before Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., proposed a nearly identical amendment in the House of Representatives a year ago. And Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., whose niece was adopted from South Korea, also has proposed allowing naturalized Americans to serve as president, but only after 35 years as citizens.
 
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"My guess is 20 years would be a little harder to pass, because then it involves personalities," Snyder said. "Then people start doing calculations: Would Gov. Schwarzenegger be eligible? Would Gov. Granholm be eligible? ... But on the other hand, that might help it get passed."

Having a Republican-sponsored proposal in the House and Senate improves the chances of passage. Still, it would need approval of two-thirds of each chamber and at least 38 state legislatures. Since the Bill of Rights, only 17 constitutional amendments have cleared that hurdle.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has not weighed in on the proposals, but he was "very impressed" by Schwarzenegger's speech at the Republican convention, said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco, has said it's time to look at allowing immigrants to become president, said spokeswoman Jennifer Crider.

Rohrabacher, a former Reagan speechwriter who has known Schwarzenegger for 25 years, said that the governor did not ask him to introduce the amendment and that they have not talked about it. He said Schwarzenegger's highly praised prime-time address at the Republican National Convention last month inspired him to act.

"I was convinced he might be able to make a major contribution to our country and we need to take this step to make him and other people like him able to become president," Rohrabacher said.

"We shouldn't deny America this valuable asset."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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