Immigration Reform Legislation Still Faces an Uphill Battle

by Stuart Rothenberg May 29, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

“This bill would allow 12 million-plus illegal aliens to remain in this country indefinitely and provides them, as well as their immediate families, a path to citizenship. This is amnesty. …”

No, that’s not the view of Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, a leader in the fight against illegal immigration. They are the comments of Randy Pullen, the Republican Party chairman in Arizona, the home state of Sens. John McCain (R) and Jon Kyl (R). McCain is a leading advocate of a comprehensive immigration bill and the co-sponsor with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) of last year’s unsuccessful proposal, and Kyl is one of the lead spokesmen for this year’s compromise plan.

Pullen went on to say he was “very disappointed” in the new proposal, arguing that the compromise would “do more to encourage illegal immigration than to discourage it.”
The initial reaction to the bipartisan compromise on immigration, which was hammered out by a diverse group of Senators including Kennedy, Kyl and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), makes it clear that passage of any bill will be difficult, and the upcoming presidential election is an additional problem for those supporting the compromise.

Hours after the compromise was announced, one Senator told me it already had fallen apart and been Scotch-taped together. That’s not a good sign.

Four months ago in this space, I wrote that Congress and the White House needed to get busy to pass an immigration bill, and they needed to do it quickly. Time is an enemy, especially given the early start of the presidential race.

In early January, immigration seemed to be the one big issue Congress and President Bush could deal with, since everyone agrees that action to stop the flow of illegal immigrants is crucial, and substantial elements of both parties favor a comprehensive approach that involves a greater commitment to border security and a temporary worker program.

But as with everything, the devil is in the details, and while everyone seems to want to address the conundrum of illegal immigration, everyone also seems to have his or her own idea of what must be done and what is unacceptable.

Grass-roots conservatives and their leaders in Congress aren’t merely playing politics when they complain that the compromise is “amnesty.” You don’t have to agree with their use of the term, but that’s how they see any plan that gives workers who are in the U.S. illegally a route for citizenship. (Supporters of the compromise obviously take exception to that characterization, but so far they have been drowned out by the “amnesty” chorus.)

That’s why Republican presidential hopefuls such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, both of whom temperamentally are more inclined toward compromise than confrontation, have not embraced the compromise on immigration.

The issue of immigration reform, which once seemed so promising for Republicans, has now turned nasty for the party. As Roll Call noted recently (“Immigration Deadline Slips,” May 22), Republican Senators who have had a role in the compromise have been booed at state party events.

Indeed, grass-roots Republicans who oppose anything but a strong security bill are likely to be more incensed at Republican officeholders who compromise with Democrats than they will be at Kennedy, whom they have long believed is a lost cause. After the party’s 2006 losses, some Republicans think purification of the GOP is the answer, not working with a Massachusetts Democrat.

You can easily imagine what the talk-radio hosts are saying as they express their outrage and promise to punish those who are pushing the plan. They know they aren’t going to defeat Kennedy or Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), but you can bet that they’ll declare war on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The president, meanwhile, seems totally irrelevant to the immigration debate. The midterm elections, the Iraq War and the administration’s other problems have stripped President Bush of any influence he once had. So instead of uniting Republicans and putting the onus on Democrats for favoring lenient treatment of lawbreakers, Republicans are spending much of their time firing at each other. Democrats, wisely, prefer not to get in the line of fire.

Of course, the Democratic Party is divided over the issue, too, but since Senate Republicans hold the key to any measure, Democrats, including those in the House, have been able to pass the buck, at least for now. While many Democrats would like to see a bill passed by Congress and signed into law, they know that, politically, they are best off if, at the end of the day, they can take credit for dealing with the issue but let Republicans take the blame for the details.

Supporters of the immigration compromise face the same problem that health care reformers faced more than a decade ago. There are so many facets to the bill, so many things to consider and deal with, that changing one part of the bill to add support means losing others who are already on board but can’t swallow proposed changes.

While a Senate compromise could hold together and pass the chamber, this bill has a long, long way to go before being enacted into law. And in Washington, D.C., it’s always better to bet against a big bill making it through the legislative gauntlet and being signed into law than it is to predict passage and enactment.