Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The combustible politics of immigration

A complicated though riveting read from the Washington Post this weekend. (Hat tip, Charlie at Chuck 2008.) Some excerpts:
While President Bush was on the U.S.-Mexican border Thursday promoting an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, Senate conservatives were persuading a team of White House aides to deny 200,000 low-skilled immigrants citizenship.

In a series of private meetings, the conservatives thought they had convinced the Bush team that as many as 200,000 low-skilled workers who enter the United States under special work visas should not be allowed to stay forever. The plan thrilled conservatives -- but also threatened to rip apart a fragile coalition supporting Bush's call for a comprehensive, and compassionate, immigration solution.

Just as conservatives were declaring White House support for the controversial amendment, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) stormed to the Senate floor to announce that new White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten had assured him that the president now opposed the measure in the name of preserving bipartisan backing. The plan was promptly defeated, and the delicate pro-reform coalition held. For now.

This late-night White House about-face -- as described by senators, House lawmakers and presidential aides -- illustrates the difficulties Bush will confront in the months ahead as he seeks what he calls "the rational middle ground" in the emotional immigration debate. Lately, the issue has seemed to operate by a political version of Newton's third law: For every action Bush takes to reassure skeptics in his own party, there is likely to be an equal reaction by supporters of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.


The dilemma played out publicly Thursday night, when Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) tried to amend the bill to stipulate that the 200,000 low-skilled immigrants allowed to enter the country under a new temporary-worker visa would have to leave when the visa expired. With Bush and his top political aides in Arizona, conservative Republican aides persuaded lower-level White House staff members to back the amendment, reasoning that Bush has always said he backs a "temporary worker program," not a permanent funnel of immigrants to the United States.

"It was a matter of truth in advertising," Cornyn said.

When word reached the backers of the compromise, they were furious, according to a senior Republican Senate aide involved in the events.


But the Republican players were unavailable. Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) was on his way to his son's wedding. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) had left Washington for commencement ceremonies. Hagel was in secret hearings with Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the president's nominee to direct the CIA.

Calls from aides to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove went unanswered because he was at a dinner. Finally, after nightfall, first Hagel, then Graham and Martinez reached Bolten from the road, telling him passage of the amendment would destroy the coalition and scuttle the legislation. They pleaded with him to call off the White House lobbyists.

After 8 p.m., a succession of conservatives went to the Senate floor to declare Bush's support for their amendment to ensure that temporary work visas really would be temporary.

Then Hagel walked onto the floor, announcing that he and his allies had just gotten off the phone with the White House chief of staff, who had assured them that Bush opposed the amendment.

"The American people have a very low opinion of you, of me, of the Congress, of the president. Read the latest polls," Hagel thundered. "Why are the American people upset with us? Because we are not doing our job. We talk about, 'Let's run to the base. Let's run to the political lowest common denominator.' That is not governing. That is cheap, transparent politics."

Cornyn fired back, "I recognize this is what some have called a 'fragile compromise' -- that if we tinker with it, all of a sudden it implodes and nothing is going to happen." But if compromise supporters "think that they have found some adversaries" in the Senate, he warned, "just wait until they get to the conference with members of the House."
Which leads us to today's Post:
Backers of President Bush's bid to revamp immigration laws scored another small victory in the Senate yesterday, but they are increasingly concerned about a House Republican policy that could block final agreement even if a bipartisan majority is within reach.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's insistence that major legislation reach the House floor only if it appears to be backed by a "majority of the majority" could throw a high hurdle in front of efforts to reach a House-Senate compromise on immigration later this year, lawmakers said. Hastert (R-Ill.) has invoked the policy in blocking bills that appeared likely to win approval from more than half of the House's 435 members but less than half of its 231 Republicans.


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