Thursday, June 29, 2006

Immigration Challenge, McCain's Challenge

Roll Call (subscription required) covers the apparent progress toward an immigration compromise between the House and Senate. In writing yesterday about the difficulties in reaching a compromise, I failed to recognize the dilemma that this may pose for John McCain. First, Roll Call:

Hints of Progress on Immigration
June 29, 2006
By Ben Pershing and Erin P. Billings,
Roll Call Staff

As House GOP leaders spent Wednesday mulling the political implications of the previous day’s Utah primary results, Republicans in both the House and Senate said the two chambers appeared to be moving slightly closer toward the possibility of an immigration reform deal.

...The debate over the implications of the Utah race were only the backdrop to Wednesday’s immigration discussion, as Republicans from both chambers expressed some cautious optimism that their positions were converging.

A day after several key Senators hinted that a compromise on immigration reform could be within reach, a handful of leading conservative Senate Republicans offered an olive branch of their own, indicating that they also are willing to cede some ground to find a solution.

Led by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a half-dozen Republicans who are taking a hard line of making border security the first priority in any bill said positions are softening in the Senate on the highly charged issue. They argued that as long as border security was at the center of legislation, they would be willing to look at a temporary guest-worker program and potentially other aspects of comprehensive reform to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country.

...When asked whether cooler heads are prevailing on the divisive issue, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the lead negotiators in the immigration impasse, said: “I hope so. I’m not positive.”

But McCain did say that key players “are talking,” and he remains hopeful that a deal is reachable this year. He said he stands firm that any compromise be comprehensive and acknowledged that provisions outside of border security will take more time to implement. Those who insist on sealing the border entirely are asking for the impossible, he said.

...None of the Senate GOP conservatives specifically wanted to lay out how far he would go to reach middle ground, but each said he was at least receptive to looking at broader, comprehensive reform if there was agreement about tightening the borders.

The conservatives have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a majority of House Republicans who want an enforcement-heavy immigration plan, fearing more moderate proposals equate to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) acknowledged that lawmakers remain “a long ways away from having any final agreement,” but that all sides now appear to be willing to give in a little.

...The enforcement-first GOP Senators said once borders are secure, a series of other comprehensive reform provisions could kick in. Part of that, in their view, includes defining legal status and requiring immigrants to learn English and U.S. history.

Word of the potential for compromise coming from the Senate slowly was reaching House Republicans.

“It’s been interesting to note in the last several days the movement among Senators,” Boehner said.

Boehner would not address several different questions about whether he would support the idea of securing the border first, then creating some sort of “trigger” mechanism for a guest-worker program to be initiated.

But Boehner did not dismiss the idea the way he has brushed aside many elements of the Senate bill, and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) suggested he would be willing to look at further steps once the border is secured.

So we can see a framework developing here: John McCain and the Senate conservatives are both talking about border enforcement plus some elements of a comprehensive approach (ie, a worker program). John Boehner and Speaker Hastert are unwilling to rule that out. So the ball is about to be in the court of House conservatives - does this approach work for them?

But as I noted yesterday, the House GOP has hitched its wagon to border enforcement first and foremost. Is their base willing to accept a deal that makes a worker program likely, even if expected improvements in stopping illegal immigration fail to materialize? That seems to be what McCain wants. And doesn't it seem that the conservative Senators, Speaker Hastert, and Majority Leader Boehner are willing to accept that?

House conservatives haven't really spoken out, and I bet they're trying to figure what will fly with their base. Is there a way to split this baby? Can a trigger be crafted that conservatives feel guarantees enforcement before a worker program, but that John McCain believes doesn't unnecessarily hold a worker program hostage to unreasonable criteria for enforcement?

And if the House conservatives stand firm and reject a 'soft trigger,' what will John McCain do? I mean, he wants the Republican nomination in 2008, right? If he stands against House conservatives on a final immigration deal, that's another blow to his hopes, isn't it? And on the other hand, if he and the House conservatives are in agreement on the trigger and the overall immigration compromise, doesn't that take away a lot of the sting of him starting this whole circus by standing with Ted Kennedy?

What will the House conservatives accept? And what's John McCain going to do?

Welcome readers of KausFiles, and thanks Mickey for the traffic. If you're interested in immigration, I've written about it quite a bit. Check out my educated guess at the type of immigration compromise that might soon be floated for debate or, just look around the site.

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