Why the Immigration Deal Flopped – Via Time.com

Via Time.com

Politics wins out, as a compromise plan falls apart. But don’t count out immigration reform just yet.

Talk about cold feet. Less than 24 hours after the leaders of the
Senate’s Democratic and Republican families had announced a marriage of
convenience on immigration reform, Minority Leader Harry Reid ditched
his Republican counterpart Bill Frist at the altar Friday, blocking the
bi-partisan bill he had backed the day before. Stunned Senators headed
to their home states for a two-week Easter recess, furious over the
break-up. “It’s a war,” said Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter.
Even members of Reid’s own party, most notably Senator Ted Kennedy, who
had worked for five years on an effective amnesty for the country’s
millions of illegal immigrants, was said to be furious.

Disappointed
members of both parties say it was Reid’s election-year ambitions that
ultimately doomed the immigration bill. The Democrats have a legitimate
chance to take back control of the Senate in November, and for a
life-long politician like Reid, few things are more important than the
opportunity to lead the world’s greatest deliberative body, his critics
say. A victory for Bill Frist on an issue as nationally charged as
immigration would not help the Democrats come election day. “It’s not
gone forward because there’s a political advantage for the Democrats not
to have an immigration bill,” Specter said.

But it’s not that
simple. After all, Reid had been ready to walk down the aisle Thursday
night, largely because the compromise he, Frist and 63 other Senators
had embraced was as close to perfect as any bill the Democrats could
hope for. It followed Ted Kennedy’s plan to put most of the country’s 12
million illegal immigrants (except for the estimated one million or so
who have been in the U.S. for less than two years) on an eventual path
to citizenship and open up a massive new legal immigration system for
low-wage workers; at the same time, it would have removed many of the
draconian penalties that were in a bill passed by the House last
December.

In retrospect, however, it may have been too perfect.
After initially signing on, Reid decided he might be walking into a
trap. Some Republicans wanted to vote on amendments that Reid believed
would have essentially picked apart the compromise plan; under one of
them, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security would have had
to certify that the border was secure before any illegal immigrants
could be made legal.

What’s more, even if he could defeat the
amendments, any bill the Senate passed would have to go into a
conference committee with the House — which wants to build a wall
along much of the U.S.-Mexico border, criminalize all illegal immigrants
in the U.S., and dramatically increase the penalties against those who
help them, from businesses to churches. Looking several moves ahead in a
game of legislative chess, Reid feared that the conference would produce
something that looked more like the House bill, which currently has no
amnesty provisions for making current illegals citizens, than the Senate
version.

Granted, when such a watered down bill came back to the
Senate, Reid could still block it by filibustering. But in a election
year, Reid knew that could be political suicide, forcing fellow
Democrats to vote against a bill Republicans would portray as securing
America’s broken borders. Those Democrats who were around in the last
mid-term election are still smarting from the votes they cast against
the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, an issue
Republicans cashed in handily at the polls. Giving Frist another
National Security vote to beat the Democrats with, they feared, was a
sure fire way to let Republicans maintain control of the Senate this
fall.

Reid had tried to get some kind of guarantee from Frist that
Republican Senators would support only the Senate version in conference,
and over the last 24 hours, Sen. John McCain worked to sign colleagues
on for just such an assurance. Frist’s chief of staff, Eric Ueland,
tried to be reassuring. “The Senate will defend the Senate position,” he
said. But Reid wanted more than that. “We have no safety net here,” says
a top Reid aide, “The Republicans have the President, the Senate and the
House.” In negotiations that lasted all night, Reid’s staff insisted on
a say in the make-up of the conference committee, but Frist wouldn’t
budge. “No majority leader is going to sign away the power of the office
or turn a weaker majority leader’s gavel over to his successors,” Ueland
said Friday.

In the end, Reid chose the only other way to avoid the
potential trap, which was to walk away from the deal.Yet that deal is
not completely dead. Specter vowed Friday that he would take the
compromise up in committee first thing on his return to Washington and
would send it to the Senate floor a week later.

Frist has not said
whether he will bring it back to the floor for a vote, but two things
could affect that decision. Serious pressure from the White House to get
a deal — pressure that so far, despite the President’s occasional
public statements, has been virtually non-existent — could move
Republicans forward. Or a backlash against the massive protests planned
by pro-immigration groups in coming days could make them dig in their
heels. The Senate’s dealmakers —John McCain, Ted Kennedy, Chuck
Hagel, Mel Martinez, Barack Obama and others — say they will continue
their weekly meetings in search of a compromise. For now though, as
Kennedy put it in what amounted to a major understatement, “politics got
in front of policy.”

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