FRIDAY AFTERNOON ON CAPITOL HILL, the world's greatest deliberative body got back to doing what it does best. One senator took to the floor to wax eloquent about a new biomedical building at his state's public university. Another successfully moved the Soda Ash Royalty Reduction Act from committee. And the most senior senator, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), delivered a peroration about Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
The Senate had time to weigh in on such weightless subjects because on Friday morning it had failed to deliver what Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had promised: passage of an immigration reform bill before the chamber's two-week Easter recess.
There's plenty of blame to go around: on those Democrats who denied Republican attempts to debate amendments on an understandably controversial piece of legislation; on those Republicans who wanted to sink any bill that allowed undocumented residents a path toward legal status, and on compromisers from both parties who settled for a flawed (if still worthwhile) bill that ignored many crucial problems.
Whoever's at fault, by shirking its responsibility, the Senate — in Washington's memorable phrase, the saucer meant to cool the hot-tempered legislation of the House — has effectively ceded the debate to the populists: zealots in the House who yearn to construct a massive border wall, street demonstrators and truant students (scheduled to rally again Monday) who mix justified outrage with woolly-headed ideas about elaborate "rights" owed to illegal immigrants, and partisans on both sides who value confrontation over civil discourse.
Little good ever comes to pass when immigration policy is driven by populism. The 1996 immigration reform law, passed just after the passage of Proposition 187 in California in 1994, removed several basic due-process protections for perfectly legal residents, such as the right to appeal a no-entry stamp by a power-mad border agent. Proposition 187 itself, had it not been struck down, would have kicked all illegal-immigrant children out of public schools, and deported the parents of even students who were U.S. citizens if they couldn't produce the proper papers.
Though the state and country have certainly changed in the decade since, the House bill is ample evidence that cooler heads are not prevailing. With midterm congressional elections looming, and the increasingly unpopular Republican Party desperate for an issue to rally its disillusioned base, the silly season could get unfunny in a hurry.
This week's Senate debate wasn't all a waste of time. The broad outlines of what's possible have now been sketched out, as well as a pretty good map of how to get there. But the time for courageous deal-making is running out.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times