Capitol Hill gears up for another raucous debate over reform
There wasn't much for President Bush to like when Democrats grabbed majorities in the House and the Senate in last November's midterm elections. But he did say he spotted one silver lining: a "good chance" to pass immigration reform. A former border-state governor, Bush has said repeatedly that he hopes legislation to allow foreigners to come to the United States "to do jobs Americans won't do" will be a hallmark of his legacy. But the effort appeared to implode last year when the Senate passed a bill that included guest-worker and path-to-citizenship programs, while the House approved a measure that mostly emphasized border enforcement. Ultimately, the two approaches could not be reconciled.
Now everyone is trying again. The Senate is embarking on what will no doubt be two furious weeks of floor debate, which many believe is the last, best chance to pass an immigration bill before the 2008 elections. But the obstacles are daunting. Several key Republicans have shifted to the right, to a more punitive approach, pulling the party toward positions untenable to many Democrats. And after three months of exhaustive negotiations, Democrats and Republicans could agree only on the loosest sketches of a possible deal last week. "It's like a horror movie where you're on the edge of your seat, wondering how it'll all turn out," says Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert with the Manhattan Institute. But with each passing day, optimism seems to be in shorter supply. The upcoming debate, like a lot of horror flicks, may end up with lots of blood on the floor, no one left standing, and the need for an equally gory sequel, maybe in two years, after the next election.
Pressure. Despite intense pressure to find common ground, the prognosis is anything but certain. Sen. Arlen Specter, the moderate Pennsylvania Republican, calls the country's immigration system an "unmitigated disaster." After Congress faltered last year, many cities and states, including Colorado and Georgia, passed their own enforcement legislation, and a host of lawsuits ensued. A series of controversial worksite raids, meanwhile, netted almost 2,800 alleged illegal workers between October and March. Craig Regelbrugge of the American Nursery and Landscape Association says many farmers are expecting "severe" shortages of seasonal workers this summer because it appears fewer immigrants are attempting to cross the southern border.
Polls show the public wants moderate solutions. An April USA Today/Gallup Poll found that almost 4 in 5 Americans favor giving the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country a way to become U.S. citizens. Only 14 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents polled said immigrants should be deported without the opportunity to come back and legalize their status. But a vocal portion of the GOP base is arguing that illegal immigration is simply out of control and is putting pressure on congressional Republicans to get tough.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wanting political cover, has said she won't bring a bill to the floor until 70 House Republicans support it. A months-long effort by longtime Senate collaborators John McCain and Edward Kennedy to craft a compromise collapsed early this year, reportedly over Kennedy's demand for labor-related provisions like wage guarantees. Since then, Bush administration officials have attended two-hour meetings at the Senate three days a week, trying to craft a measure Republicans can support. Democrats joined the deliberations several weeks ago, but so far, only modest progress has been made on what some have called a " grand bargain." It's a long way from a workable bill, though, and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid's proposal to resurrect last year's bipartisan bill if negotiations stall brought almost immediate threats of a filibuster.