Immigration bill drew bipartisan fire

Times Staff Writers

The collapse of immigration legislation in the Senate this week is a monument to President Bush’s enfeebled clout on Capitol Hill, the searing power of hostility toward illegal immigrants, and the difficulty of crafting a compromise on an emotional issue that touches so many diverse economic and political interests.

The fragile bipartisan deal on immigration was sidelined -- at least for now and possibly for the rest of Bush’s presidency -- under fire from critics on the left and right, in labor and business, and in both political parties who believe the trouble-ridden status quo is better than the bill’s untested new system.

“That’s why people’s phones are ringing off the hook,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading opponent of the bill.


Despite support from Bush and a bipartisan coalition of influential senators, the bill fell victim to a groundswell of opposition to illegal immigration that has buffeted members of Congress around the country -- even in middle American states hundreds of miles from the Mexican border.

“Their left flank hated it, and our right flank hated it,” explained Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “The middle is a treacherous place to be.”

The bill’s committed proponents -- the president and a bipartisan coalition of 12 senators -- say they are determined to revive it.

On Friday, Bush urged three key Republican lawmakers in private phone calls to fight for the bill and today will deliver his radio address on the issue, deploring the divisions it has created and asking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “to act quickly to bring this bill back to the Senate floor for a vote.”

Speaking less than 24 hours after the bill’s demise, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the lead Republican supporter, said the group had “already begun the process of figuring out how to get this back together and concluded within the next few weeks.” His Democratic counterpart, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, insisted, “We are not giving up. We are not giving in.”

The bill was brought down by a disagreement over how many amendments should be considered, but Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the lawmakers have already settled on a “finite list which will come forward.”

They will have very little time, as the Senate’s slate is full with energy legislation and then a defense spending bill, which may not be finished before Congress takes its Fourth of July recess. Once lawmakers return, there are about seven workweeks in which they will have to pass a slew of spending bills before the government’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

And political conditions for compromise will deteriorate as the 2008 election approaches -- especially if Bush’s standing with the public continues to slide.

Some proponents of an immigration overhaul fear that if the issue is not addressed this year, it will languish for years -- to corrosive effect because the influx of illegal immigration will continue unchecked.

“It could be hard to come back and revisit it,” said Tamar Jacoby, a Manhattan Institute policy analyst who supports immigration reform. “But five more years of a broken system will threaten the American social fabric. Big chunks of America won’t want to be a nation of immigrants any more.”

All along, the bill has faced major hurdles. It was the product of bipartisan backroom negotiations and was intended to draw the support of disparate interests, but it also ended up including something for everyone to hate.

The bill would create a way for most illegal immigrants to gain citizenship -- a key goal for Democrats and their growing Latino constituency, but anathema to most Republicans who viewed it as amnesty for lawbreakers.

The compromise’s most far-reaching provision, backed by Republicans and their conservative base, would shift some of the emphasis in future legalization from family ties toward an applicant’s skills and education. But that was opposed by many Democrats who complained it would break up families.

Two constituencies that were seen as essential counters to the outspoken conservative grass-roots opposition -- labor and business -- proved to be lukewarm to or divided over the bill.

Some businesses objected to the bill’s limits on their ability to recruit specific immigrant workers, and others disliked provisions that required employers to step up enforcement of immigration laws.

Labor was split between service and hotel worker unions that support increased immigration and see it as a source of new members, and industrial unions that are concerned about competition for scarce jobs. Both camps had concerns about the bill’s temporary-worker program, which would bring 200,000 workers to the U.S. annually but not let them stay after they had worked six years.

But the single most powerful obstacle facing the bill is a groundswell of virulent opposition to illegal immigration -- mostly among Republicans who peppered GOP lawmakers with furious criticism if they showed sympathy for allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship under certain conditions.

Those angry critics booed Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), both bill supporters, at their state conventions. They packed town hall meetings with boisterous crowds when lawmakers returned to their districts. When Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), at a constituent meeting last week, quoted a Bible verse -- “When an alien lives with you, do not mistreat him.” -- one man shouted, “I can tell you’re for amnesty!” and stalked out.

On Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said misinformation and anger about the bill was such that “in my 15 years I’ve never received more hate or more racist phone calls and threats.”

Just one anti-immigration group, NumbersUSA, has sent more than 100,000 faxes and made thousands of calls to Congress since Wednesday. The intensity of that anger propelled some of the bill’s opponents.

Reid said he was unable to reach an agreement on what amendments would be debated because some senators, including Sessions and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), were refusing every offer he made.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met with Sessions, DeMint, David Vitter of Louisiana and others late Thursday in an attempt to broker an agreement and whittle the list of amendments down to about 10.

McConnell couldn’t accomplish that before the vote Reid had set for 8:30 p.m., and Reid was not willing to wait. By 9 p.m., the bill’s future was in question.

Its demise would be a serious blow to Bush’s effort to realize one of the top domestic policy priorities of his second term. He already has abandoned another major domestic goal: overhauling Social Security.

It also jeopardizes his goal of attracting more Latino voters to the Republican Party. The immigration bill’s collapse also poses some risks to Democrats because the cause is dear to the party’s Latino constituency.

And it makes it harder for the party to claim to be using its newly won congressional majority to tackle tough problems.

Democratic leaders say they are confident that Republicans will bear the brunt of the blame for the bill’s collapse, but on Friday, the bipartisan group behind the bill avoided the question of responsibility.

“I don’t think we should engage in that blame game,” said Kyl, whose state has the most illegal border crossings. “We have a lot of important things to do here, but I can’t think of very much that’s more important than this.”