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A Failure of Leadership in a Flawed Political Culture

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

The collapse of comprehensive immigration revision in the Senate last night represents a political defeat for President Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill's most prominent sponsors. More significantly, it represents a scathing indictment of the political culture of Washington.

The defeat of the legislation can be laid at the doorstep of opponents on the right and left, on congressional leaders who couldn't move their troops and on an increasingly weakened president and his White House team. But together it added up to another example of a polarized political system in which the center could not hold.

The partisan blame game was already at fever pitch as the bill was going down yesterday. But to those far removed from the backrooms of Capitol Hill, what happened will fuel cynicism toward a political system that appears incapable of finding ways to resolve the nation's big challenges.

If Washington cannot produce a solution to the glaring problem of immigration, they will ask, what hope is there for progress on health care, energy independence, or the financial challenges facing Medicare and Social Security? Iraq is another matter entirely.

Voters wanted an immigration deal, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged as he pulled the measure after 9 last night: "The problem was on the inside of this Senate chamber."

The bill's proponents took the Senate floor after the cloture vote failed and expressed hope that they can work around the impasse. But Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) spoke of the reality of the day. "The United States Senate," he said, "in its long and storied history, today bipartisanly failed the American people. That's plain and simple."

The collective failure of the two parties already appears to have stimulated interest in a third-party candidate for president in 2008 whose main promise would be to make Washington work. It is far too early to assess the viability of such a candidate, but it is easy to imagine the immigration impasse finding its way into a television commercial if someone such as New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg decides to run.

Twice in two years, Congress has grappled with immigration. The first time, Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, but Bush could not persuade members of his own deeply divided party to resolve their disagreements. The Republicans, responding to their conservative base, pushed for a tough border security bill but balked at dealing with the controversial question of how to treat the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

This time the prospects seemed brighter. The November midterm elections changed the balance of power in Washington, with Democrats now in control of the Capitol. The compromise immigration bill in the Senate enjoyed the support of Bush, Senate Democratic leaders and some prominent senators from both parties -- the kind of coalition that many politicians claim to prize. The bipartisan bill still ended up in a heap.

"The reality is most people are just desperate to see a solution. If this goes down, the opposition is not offering an alternative, and that means the problem is still an issue," said Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster. "We're in a period where people are looking to see leadership and progress."

All sides will find reasons to explain away what happened: Democrats blame Republicans for demanding too much and delivering too few votes. Republicans blame Democrats for being unwilling to take their views into account and for opposing details of a guest-worker program. Democrats blame Bush for failing to bring his troops into line. Proponents blame anti-immigration forces for whipping up opposition.

There is truth in all their allegations. That this bill was imperfect is without dispute. Only a few politicians -- Bush and McCain among them -- were strongly vocal in urging passage, but they, too, had reservations about the compromise. House Democratic leaders were tepid in their support, demanding that Republicans bring at least 60 to 70 votes so that freshman Democrats from marginal districts would be able to vote no.

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said the immigration debate pits "practical principle against practical reality." He noted that opponents passionately believe they are standing on principle, while proponents are "holding their nose" but argue that the problem must be addressed. "Neither side is willing to give," he said.

Reid warned, hours before the bill collapsed, that he would not seek to revive the issue. Later, he pledged to work hard to resurrect a deal. Perhaps, once people step back from what happened, they will try again. Perhaps they will succeed on their third try.

No one ever believed that passing comprehensive changes in immigration law would be easy. As McCain said in Tuesday's Republican debate in New Hampshire, "It's our job to do the hard things, not the easy things." But for a long time, Washington politicians have flinched at the hard things, preferring to engage in political combat aimed at gaining partisan advantage first.

There is little time for progress on difficult issues before Bush's lame-duck status reduces his power even more and before the 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns turn the country into a partisan battlefield. Immigration provides one clear test for the system before that reality locks in. So far the system is losing.

If there is no attempt to revive the immigration bill, the issue will become fodder throughout the long campaign ahead. Already it is shaping the Republican presidential debate, with McCain on one side and his leading opponents on the other.

Even as the bill was heading to defeat, presidential rival Rudolph W. Giuliani criticized McCain for saying the bill had not been everything he would have wanted. "Then he should have written the one he wanted and pushed that," Giuliani said on Sean Hannity's radio show.

Public opinion suggests an electorate open to, but by no means wildly enthusiastic about, comprehensive change that provides the 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, but only if there is an effective border security plan in place.

Republicans are clearly divided, but perhaps not as the heated rhetoric of the campaign trail suggests. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that, on the question of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the public narrowly approves: 52 percent to 44 percent. Democrats back such a plan 57 percent to 38 percent and independents 51 to 45 percent. Republicans are opposed, 53 to 43 percent -- significant but not overwhelming.

Those numbers underscore how difficult the issue is and why leadership is critical in coming to a solution. A divided public may take sides in apportioning blame for what happened in the Senate, but it is possible they could come to a joint conclusion about their leaders in Washington, one that will reverberate as the calendar turns to 2008.

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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