Congress readies for immigration showdown
Congress will try to fix the immigration problem before the July 4 recess, but the date that really matters is November 7.
Whether the House and Senate can overcome their rancor and cobble together a compromise to reform the nation's immigration laws will depend less on the goodwill of the legislators and more on how the issue is playing in a handful of hotly contested midterm elections. In some key races it's considered a make-or-break issue, but in others it's farther down the list.
That level of intensity will likely determine just how much room for bargaining there will be between the vastly different House and Senate versions when negotiators for both sides sit down this week. At least so far, there may be more room than recent press reports would suggest.
In a survey of 12 heavily contested House races across the countryfrom Connecticut to Florida to Arizonathe importance of the immigration debate depends largely on the congressional district, even though 81 percent of Americans say illegal immigration is out of control, according to a recent Gallup Poll.
In the Southwest for example, immigration is the decisive issue in the race to replace Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, a Republican moderate on the issue. Randy Graf, the Republican leading in the primary, opposes any form of a guest-worker program, placing him to the right of conservatives such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican who has led the fight against any legalization measures.
But next door in the closest New Mexico race, where one would expect immigration to be equally important given that the district is more than 40 percent Hispanic, the Republican incumbent and the Democratic challenger have both remained moderately quiet on the issue. Rep. Heather Wilson was one of the few Republicans who voted against the conservative bill that passed the House in December that focused specifically on border security; Patricia Madrid, her opponent, has been almost completely mum on the issue. Her campaign says they've focused instead on the Medicare prescription drug plan, the war in Iraq, energy shortages, and efforts to take advantage of President Bush's low approval ratings by linking him with Wilson.
Likewise, in the closest Florida congressional race, immigration has yet to rise to the inflammatory level that talk show pundits say the issue will reach this election year. According to the staff of both Rep. Clay Shaw, the Republican incumbent, and Ron Klein, the Democratic challenger, immigration has fallen to the wayside, replaced bymore pressing matters such as Social Security, the prescription drug plan, and the skyrocketing cost of homeowners' insurance.
In the Midwest, many House Republican incumbents have taken firm stands in support of a border security first approach, but there, too, the immigration issue doesn't appear to be the turning point in the election. Rep. Deborah Pryce, an Ohio Republican opposed to legalization for immigrants living in the country illegally, says "immigration has become a top issue," but she says jobs and the economy still come first. Similarly, in Indiana, Rep. Mike Sodrel, a conservative one-term incumbent facing a former congressman, has emphasized tax cuts, the economy, and his stance on family values. And in the highly publicized Illinois congressional race to replace Rep. Henry Hyde, neither Republican Peter Roskam, a state senator, nor Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic Party darling this year, have staked out firm positions on immigration reform.
In the Northeast, the issue again plays differently depending on the district. In the perennially close Philadelphia suburbs, neither Rep. Jim Gerlach, a moderate Republican, nor Lois Murphy, his challenger, has emphasized immigration. But in Connecticut, Rep. Chris Shays, another moderate Republican, recently recanted his longstanding support for legalization. "I found myself trying to explain why [illegal immigrants] should become citizens, and I couldn't, seeing as they came here illegally," he said. Illegal immigration, he says, is a "pretty significant" issue in his district but that his current view is not "politically correct . . . among a lot of my constituency." Diane Farrell, his opponent, supports a path to citizenship, and has portrayed Shays as a flip-flopper on immigration.
For Senate races, the political significance of immigration also largely depends on the campaign. In Missouri, incumbent Republican Jim Talent wants to make immigration the hot-button issue, sending out E-mails to supporters painting his challenger Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, as supporting amnesty. By contrast, in Ohio, Sen. Mike DeWine's moderate stance on immigration reform is not expected to seriously hurt him, and he isn't highlighting the issue on the campaign trail. Neither is Democratic opponent Rep. Sherrod Brown. "Immigration is a problem, but Ohioans are most concerned about affording their mortgage, having jobs, and making sure their pension is still around after 30 years at a company," says Brown spokeswoman Joanna Kuebler.
In Maryland, the immigration debate has so far played a low profile. Leading Democratic candidates Benjamin Cardin and Kweisi Mfume haven't staked out clear positions. "I don't even know what his position is," says one Cardin aide. "And I don't know what Mfume's position is, either." Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the Republican candidate, supports securing the border before considering a guest-worker program, but he has so far used the immigration debate in Congress as a way to portray himself as an outside-the-beltway candidate rather than as a strategy to attack his opponents.
Although immigration reform may continue to dominate the Capitol Hill discussion in the coming weeks as the House and Senate struggle to narrow the gap between their immigration bills, the issue may prove once again that most, if not all, politics is local.
With Dan Gilgoff, Liz Halloran, Alex Kingsbury, Danielle Knight, Angie C. Marek, and Bret Schulte.