McConnell's Immigration Failure

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, July 2, 2007

I asked one of the few conservative Republican senators who stuck with President Bush on immigration to assess how Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell handled the issue. Asking not to be quoted by name, he replied: "If this were a war, Sen. McConnell should be relieved of command for dereliction of duty." Not only did the minority leader end up voting against an immigration bill that he said was better than the 2006 version he supported, he abandoned his post, staying off the floor during final stages of the debate.

Although I had never before seen a Senate party leader bail out of a major legislative fight, relieving McConnell of his command seems too drastic. Until now he has gotten high marks from colleagues since taking over the leadership six months ago following four dreary years under Bill Frist. McConnell's non-performance on immigration derived from general Republican malaise going well beyond a single issue.

It is difficult to exaggerate the pessimism about the immediate political future voiced by Republicans in Congress when not on the record. With an unpopular president waging an unpopular war, they foresee electoral catastrophe in 2008, with Democratic gains in both the House and Senate and Hillary Clinton in the White House. That's the atmosphere in which these lachrymose lawmakers have for several months faced an increasingly hysterical onslaught from constituents demanding the death of the "amnesty" for immigrants they heard vilified on talk radio.

These callers swamped phone lines to Republican congressional offices (as well as to the White House) with threats that they would never vote again for anybody supporting "amnesty." While that intimidated some previous supporters of the immigration bill, its opponents saw in the xenophobia of their backers a ray of light in the bleak political landscape.

"We did it!" exulted freshman Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, one of the bill's leading Republican opponents, in an e-mail to financial contributors (and some who had never given DeMint any money). "When the U.S. Senate brought the Amnesty bill back up this week, they declared war on the American people." The message concluded with a request for a donation to DeMint's 2010 reelection fund. DeMint was not the only triumphant e-mailer. Newt Gingrich, eyeing a presidential run, declared to contributors "a soaring victory for the American people" in the defeat of the "Bush-Kennedy-McCain bill."

DeMint and Gingrich gloated because 12 Republican senators who had supported the bill succumbed to pressure and voted against it Thursday -- most without prior explanation -- as McConnell did. He is up for reelection in Kentucky in what will be a difficult 2008 for Republicans, with the state's other GOP senator, Jim Bunning, beating a tattoo on immigration. Among the switchers were Saxby Chambliss, who was booed in May at the Georgia Republican convention for supporting the bill and faces a reelection fight next year, and Richard Burr, under attack in his state of North Carolina.

McConnell was among six switchers who voted no after the 40 senators needed to kill the bill were recorded. Another late switcher was Sen. Sam Brownback, seeking the Republican presidential nomination as the candidate of the right. He voted for the first cloture motion on Tuesday to keep the immigration bill alive and put out a news release on his presidential Web site explaining his vote. On Thursday he voted again for the bill. But when it became clear the measure had failed, he changed his vote from aye to nay and scrubbed his earlier statement from the Internet.

Unlike McConnell, the second- and third- ranking Senate GOP leaders -- Trent Lott and Jon Kyl -- stuck with the bill despite intense pressure in their respective states of Mississippi and Arizona. So did Lindsey Graham, facing threats of Republican primary opposition in South Carolina next year. So did John McCain, despite damage to his crumbling presidential campaign.

"This isn't a day to celebrate," McConnell said in his postmortem. Indeed, Republicans drove another nail in George W. Bush's political coffin and undermined hopes for winning the growing, and winnable, Hispanic vote. Contending that the time "wasn't now" for immigration, McConnell added: "It wasn't the people's will. And they were heard." He was blaming Republican failure on his fellow citizens, which seldom works in politics.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 Creators