HOW CAN YOU TELL WHEN a governing party is running out of steam? When it controls all branches of government yet abandons even the pretense of addressing an issue most members claim is a "crisis."
That's what the GOP-led House did Tuesday in announcing that discussions over reconciling its enforcement-centric immigration bill with the Senate's legalization-focused version will be pushed back to September at the earliest, and only after completing more hearings. Instead of naming negotiators and attempting in good faith to bridge the chasm between the bills, House leaders are busy naming locations for "field meetings" that can deliver maximum demagogic effect in the run-up to the November election.
These meetings are nonsense. Congress held more than a dozen hearings on immigration last year before passing HR 4437. That punitive bill filled the streets with millions of protesters angry that it did little to address the nation's need for a legal supply of labor or the estimated 11 million-plus illegal residents of this country, besides turning them into felons.
The Senate version, a flawed piece of work in its own right after too many compromises, at least offered a system (however torturous) by which millions of underground workers could finally come into the open without fear of immediate incarceration or deportation. Most of the last-minute amendments to the Senate bill brought the legislation closer to the version passed by the House. But Republicans there prefer clinging to the dangerous fantasy that a massive, militarized wall must be approved before discussions can even begin over what to do with the millions of indispensable, but vilified, workers already here.
House GOP leaders can barely conceal their preference for divisive politics over sound policy. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois has reportedly conveyed to President Bush that hard-line enforcement politics is polling particularly well this season. One Republican congressional aide told the Associated Press: "The discussion is how to put the Democrats in a box without attacking the president." This is what passes for Republican leadership nowadays.
Summer and fall will be gut-check time not just for Bush, who has tried in his vague though periodically eloquent way to make immigration reform his signature domestic accomplishment this year, or for pro-reform GOP senators such as John McCain of Arizona, but for the American people. When the vulnerable party in power chooses to adopt a campaign strategy that demonizes a class of people, how it fares will say much about who we are.
Twelve years ago, Republicans were swept into Congress on a platform bursting with energy and ideas, with many measures enacted within the GOP's first 100 days in power. If inaction and xenophobia are all the party has left, this could be its last 100 days.