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The Immigration Bill In Harry Reid's Court

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, June 14, 2007

It is hard to say who looked worse in the Senate's impasse on immigration legislation -- Democrats or Republicans -- but the responsibility for reviving that measure clearly rests most heavily on the shoulders of Majority Leader Harry Reid.

It was Reid who decided last Thursday to pull the bill off the floor after a small number of recalcitrant Republicans, led by Jim DeMint of South Carolina, blocked his efforts to clear away the remaining Republican amendments and move toward a final vote.

Reid abandoned the effort to pass the legislation, despite pleas from its leading Democratic sponsor, Sen. Ted Kennedy, to give it more time -- and despite an offer from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to pare down overnight the list of remaining Republican amendments to a manageable size.

Reid had decided that a week of debate before the Memorial Day recess and four or five more days last week was all the time the Senate could afford for what is arguably the single most important domestic issue on the agenda.

All this, from a Senate that had spent most of the past five months battling futilely with President Bush over a timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq -- and that then closed down for three days over last weekend and used Monday for a debate on a purely symbolic vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Readers of this column know I am no fan of Sen. Reid. When I wrote in April about his shortcomings as majority leader, The Post received a protest letter signed by the other 50 senators in the Democratic Caucus, attesting to their devotion to their leader.

I may be risking another mass reprimand by what I am about to write, but here is what I know:

There's no doubt that DeMint, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and a few other Republicans were out to stop the immigration bill -- and were conducting a filibuster by amendment. But McConnell, who supports the legislation and was eager to deliver a legislative victory to Bush, said repeatedly that the Republicans would vote to end debate after they had a chance to offer as many amendments as they did last year -- when they controlled the Senate and had passed a similar immigration measure.

By McConnell's count, they were nine short of that number when Reid tried to cut off debate Thursday night. Democrats have a different tally. Reid had been trying all day to cut a deal with the Republicans to dispose of a few more amendments, but he was continually stymied by DeMint and Sessions. Reid said he would brook no more delay. But with McConnell withholding his help, only seven of the 49 Republicans voted for cloture -- and it failed, prompting Reid to remove the immigration bill from the Senate floor.

In his pique, Reid was quick to label the rejected legislation as "the president's bill," even though the White House had had less to do with writing it than a bipartisan group of senators, mainly members of the Judiciary Committee. Reid also put the onus on Bush to deliver more Republican votes to end debate, making that a condition for possibly reviving the measure -- after the Senate finishes work on an energy bill some time next week.

His aides and associates insist that Reid really wants an immigration bill. But he went out of his way to rewrite that bill to meet the demands of organized labor by allowing a second vote on an amendment by Byron Dorgan of North Dakota to "sunset" after five years the guest-worker program that unions see as a competitive source of low-wage workers.

The Dorgan amendment lost by one vote the first time but passed by a single vote the next time -- as four conservative Republicans supported it in hopes it would become a "poison pill" that killed the fragile bipartisan consensus behind the bill. Reid himself supported the "killer" amendment.

He may be playing with fire. A poll that Andy Kohut completed for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press four days before the Senate fiasco on the immigration bill found a striking increase in disapproval of Democratic congressional leaders. In January, 39 percent approved of them and 34 percent disapproved. In early June, disapproval topped approval, 49 percent to 34 percent. Among independents, the disapproval score was 58 percent to 26 percent.

Reid may think that Bush will suffer if immigration reform is killed. But the public is likely to put the blame where it principally belongs -- on the leader of the party that runs the Senate.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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