Sunday, June 25, 2006

Immigration Bill Will be Enacted

The New York Times provides an interesting profile of the state of play on immigration. I think that it's probably a fairly accurate assessment of where we stand and how we got here:

June 25, 2006
Bush's Immigration Plan Stalled as House G.O.P. Grew More Anxious
This article is by Adam Nagourney, Carl Hulse and Jim Rutenberg.

WASHINGTON, June 24 — For the White House, the Congressional picnic last week seemed like the perfect setting to mend strained relations with Republican allies on Capitol Hill: President Bush and his advisers eating taquitos and Mexican confetti rice on the lawn of the White House with Republican Congressional leaders.

But moments before Mr. Bush was to welcome his guests, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert told the president that House Republicans were effectively sidelining — and in the view of some Congressional aides probably killing — what had become Mr. Bush's signature domestic initiative of the year: an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

That disappointing news for Mr. Bush signaled the apparent collapse of a carefully orchestrated White House strategy to push a compromise immigration bill through Congress this summer — and in the process invigorate Mr. Bush's second term with a badly needed domestic victory.

The decision by the House leadership to defy the president after he had put so much prestige on the line — including a rare prime-time Oval Office speech for a domestic initiative — amounted to a clear rebuke of the president on an issue that he has long held dear.

An account of the administration's push for the initiative, based on interviews with members of Congress and senior White House and Congressional officials, shows that Mr. Bush's immigration measure was derailed by an overly optimistic assessment by the White House of the prospects for building a bipartisan coalition in support of the bill. It was also hurt by a fundamental misreading of the depth of hostility to the measure among House Republicans.

It was undone as well, White House and Congressional leaders acknowledged, by a sharp division over whether to focus on the short term or on the party's long-term political prospects. Mr. Bush's aides saw the House bill, which would make it a felony to live in this country illegally and would close off any chance to win legal status, as a threat to their attempts to broaden the party's appeal to Hispanic voters.

...White House officials said they could point to several areas of progress in Congress — on extending tax cuts, pushing a line-item veto and overhauling the pension system. They said that they were under no illusions about the difficulties facing the immigration plan, but that it would never have gotten this far without the president, who will keep pushing for it. Aides say it is still possible to reach a compromise after the November elections, if not before. "We believe by being patient and sticking with it, in time people are going to be pretty happy with what the president proposes," said Tony Snow, the White House spokesman.

But several analysts were skeptical, noting that in just the past week a Republican candidate for governor in Arizona called for building prison camps for illegal immigrants. And the first campaign advertisement for Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who many believe is the most endangered Republican in the Senate, featured him talking about stringent border measures.

From the start of the year, after House Republicans passed a tough immigration measure that Mr. Bush's political advisers worried would undercut their effort to appeal to Hispanic voters, the White House tentatively pushed a more moderate, "comprehensive" bill that was gathering support in the Senate.

But Mr. Bush was criticized by both sides as not taking a public stand on specifics and permitting conservative members of the House to define the debate. Aides said the president was trying to stay above the discussion to remain flexible enough to broker a compromise.

Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said that in one strategy session Mr. Bush told the senator he could not be identified as publicly supporting the Senate bill, which sought to tighten border control but also give illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens after paying fines. "Don't quote me, Arlen," Mr. Specter recalled the president saying, implying that Mr. Bush had spoken approvingly of the bill.

...But House Republicans said they never stopped pressing the case to the White House that the bill was a political disaster for endangered incumbents, and they were baffled at what they said was the failure of Mr. Bush's aides to appreciate their conviction.

One lawmaker said House Republicans who had attended two closed-door briefings on the issue by the White House deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, and others, kept waiting for the administration to reverse their concerns that passing the bill would hurt Republicans; in the lawmakers' view, the administration never made a convincing case.

White House aides said Republicans had overestimated the bill's political liabilities and underestimated the long-term damage it could do to the party if Republicans were identified among Hispanics as anti-immigrant. "This is a bad trajectory for the Republican Party right now," said a senior Republican official who was granted anonymity to discuss the unusual friction in the Republican ranks.

Positions hardened when lawmakers went home for recess at the end of May and were confronted by constituents agitated over the issue. They returned to Washington to the news that Mr. Bilbray had narrowly won the seat vacated by Randy Cunningham, a Republican now jailed after a corruption scandal.

When House Republicans met for a conference that Wednesday, conservative members seized on the Bilbray victory as vindication of their argument that embracing the Senate and White House position would be poison in the fall elections, according to one participant in the meeting who was granted anonymity because the meetings were private.

...Over the next few days, Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, the head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, went to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Hastert and, using polling data and pointing to what he described as politically implausible sections of the bill, warned of the consequences of enactment of the Senate legislation.

"Reynolds made clear to the leaders that the House had already staked out its position, and from a political standpoint it would be irresponsible to accept a bill that was much different," said Carl Forti, his communications director. He said Mr. Reynolds had told House leaders that supporting the bill would be "suicide for some of our members."

The White House and its supporters pointed to a poll that found strong support among Republican voters for a bill that allowed illegal immigrants to "earn" legal status. And senior White House aides argued that fellow party members were over-interpreting the meaning of Mr. Bilbray's victory in a traditionally solid Republican area. "We're happy he won," Mr. Snow said Friday. "But he barely got 50 percent."

I think the White House has all along felt that an enforcement-only bill such as that of the House will damage long-term Republican prospects with hispanic voters. Amd they certainly underestimated the depth of opposition to an amnesty among House Republicans. Republican representatives from every part of the country have been deluged with questions at town-hall meetings and public appearances about immigration. With so many convinced that support for the Senate approach would kill the Republican majority - if not their own political careers - there's no way a bill like that could pass the House.

Also, the White House has a point when they say that polls show broad support for an amnesty - or 'earned legalization.' The political question is whether those voters are going to base their vote on that issue. If 65% say they support an amnesty, and they will vote against officials who oppose one, amnesty would pass in a heartbeat. But amnesty supporters are not all that intense in their feelings, while opponents will vote against amnesty supporters in a heartbeat.

So I think that the President's approach is dead - unless no bill is done before the election, and Democrats make great advances in November. If Congressional Republicans stand against an amnesty, and Republicans lose seats in November, then in a lame-duck session there may be a decision to cut a quick deal and pass a bill. If Democrats wind up taking one of the Houses, there will be no lame duck deal, as Democrats will insist on having their say on the issue once they are in power. This is something amnesty opponents should fear, obviously.

But as I've predicted before, I think something like the House bill will get done before the elections. I think House Republicans have invested too much, and their slate of hearings - along with Hastert's commitment to further legislative action soon - is a clear indication that they have not given up on passing an enforcement-only bill. A majority of Senate Republicans favors such a bill as well. The President will continue to speak in support of a 'comprehensive' bill - which is both true to his beliefs and will help with hispanic voters - but he will ultimately sign the bill that Congress sends him. The political model will be Clinton on welfare reform or the Defense of Marriage Act: 'I'm not happy with this bill, and I would have done it differently, but this is a step forward.' This will represent a victory for the 'triangulation' strategy on immigration that I spoke of months ago, and Mickey Kaus suggested before me. It will not be pretty and no one will be entirely satisfied, but it's probably the best that can be expected from such a difficult issue.

(Let me provide as well, an important clarifying point: when I say that 'something like the House bill will get done,' it might contain some version of a guestworker program - such as the Pence proposal, or a worker program triggered by achieving enforcement targets. The test will be whether House Republicans believe that voting for the bill would tag them as amnesty supporters. The President's push for half a loaf, and Congressional GOP concerns about hispanic voters and a possible Democratic majority, could lead to such an approach.)

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