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DREAMing of bipartisanship

By Ezra Klein,

In 2001, Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act -- better known as the DREAM Act -- into the Senate. The legislation would’ve made it possible for the children of undocumented immigrants to gain permanent residency if they stayed out of trouble and went to school or joined the military. The idea was that we shouldn’t make kids pay for the migration decisions of their parents, and we shouldn’t deny our economy skilled workers we’ve already paid to educate or our military eager recruits who want to defend the country they’ve grown up in.

YURI GRIPAS

REUTERS

President Obama speaks about immigration from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington June 15, 2012. Obama said on Friday his administration's decision to stop deporting some illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children was a "just" move that was not a permanent fix to the country's immigration problem.

Hatch’s legislation quickly proved popular with his Republican colleagues. His initial cosponsors included Sens. Sam Brownback, Larry Craig, Mike DeWine, Chuck Grassley, and Richard Lugar. When Hatch reintroduced the bill in 2003, Sens. Lincoln Chaffee, Susan Collins, Norm Coleman, Mike Crapo, Peter Fitzgerald, Chuck Hagel, John McCain and Ben Nighthorse Campbell joined the list of co-sponsors. The legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with ease: The final tally was 16-3, with seven of the 10 Republicans voting in favor.

More than a decade later, the DREAM Act still hasn’t been signed into law. Some of that is simply because of the vagaries of the Senate and the political calendar. After the legislation passed the Judiciary Committee, it was delayed for various procedural reasons, and then it got crowded out by President George W. Bush’s effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

But some of it is because the Republican Party has executed an almost total flip-flop on the idea. In December 2010, during the post-election lame-duck session, a tighter, a more stringent DREAM Act passed the House and came to the floor in the Senate. Fifty-two Democrats, and three Republicans, voted for it. (Two of those Republicans -- Sens. Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski -- had lost to tea party primary challengers earlier in 2010. The third, Sen. Richard Lugar, lost to a tea party challenge this year.) The 55 “ayes,” however, weren’t sufficient to overcome a Republican-led filibuster of the bill.

In the past week or so, another version of this story has played out at almost comically high speed. Sen. Marco Rubio proposed a weakened successor to the DREAM Act that would help young undocumented immigrants who go to school or enter the military remain in the country, albeit without a path to citizenship or permanent residence. Days later, President Obama proposed implementing something similar to Rubio’s bill that would effectively halt deportations for the group of immigrants.*

The Republican reaction? Rubio and Mitt Romney have both criticized Obama for acting unilaterally on the issue, and “a Rubio aide confirmed to HuffPost that the senator may not introduce his bill because he believes the politics are now more difficult.”

The aide is almost certainly right: The internal politics of the Republican Party make it very difficult for Republican legislators to vote for anything that Obama publicly supports. But that raises the question: What, exactly, are Democrats supposed to do to compromise with Republicans?

As Democrats learned during the DREAM Act’s first decade in existence, proposing policies that Republicans have previously proposed doesn’t work. Since 2009, Democrats have sought to find middle ground with a health-care plan based around an individual mandate (which Republican Sen. John Chafee first introduced into the Senate in the 1990s), a cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions (which Republican Senator John McCain introduced into the Senate in 2003), and tax-cut based stimulus plans (which President George W. Bush signed in 2008). No go.

Backing policies that Republicans currently support hasn’t proven much more effective. When Obama put his weight behind legislation to create a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission, a number of the Republicans who supported that bill, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, flipped to oppose it.

Obama then created the Simpson-Bowles commission through an executive order. After it finished, Republicans lashed Obama for being cool in his initial reaction to the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan (which Republicans also didn’t support). So, when the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six proposed their version of the Simpson-Bowles plan, Obama gave an enthusiastic press conference calling the plan “good news” and signaling that he would sign it. A “Senate Republican leadership aide” promptly e-mailed Politico’s Mike Allen to say, “Background guidance: The president killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it. 2) Hailing the fact that it increases taxes. 3) Saying it mirrors his own plan.”

As for simply acting on his own, that’s what the president tried to do with Rubio’s DREAM-lite, and Republicans quickly attacked him for making bipartisan cooperation on the issue harder, and now Rubio might not release his legislation at all.

To recap: When Democrats endorse ideas Republican pioneered, that doesn’t lead to bipartisanship. When they endorse ideas Republicans currently support, that doesn’t lead to bipartisanship. And when they act on their own, that’s too partisan.

So what, exactly, are they supposed to do?

Correction: This post initially said Obama was using an executive order to implement DREAM-lite. In fact, he’s directing the Department of Homeland Security to use “prosecutorial discretion” in order to implementDREAM-lite. The post has been updated to reflect this fact. More details here.

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