We have become accustomed in the six years of the George W. Bush presidency to seeing issues split the parties and the nation down the middle, with almost all Republicans on one side and almost all Democrats on the other.
There have been exceptions (the 2002 education law), but this has been the pattern on tax cuts, health savings accounts, trade-promotion authority and free-trade agreements. Immigration is different. This is an issue that splits both parties, the Republicans most visibly, but the Democrats, too. It is an issue on which politicians, being what they are, seek political advantage, but it is also an issue where they're not quite sure where the political advantage lies.
No wonder Congress and the White House didn't bring the issue forward till the fifth year of Bush's presidency, even though he campaigned on it in 2000. And no wonder that members of Congress keep shifting positions on the issue. The House passed a border-security bill, with no guest-worker or legalization provisions, last December. Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill touching on all three issues. But Minority Leader Harry Reid kept the bill off the floor. The issue seemed dead on Capitol Hill.
Now it may be coming alive again. Speaker Dennis Hastert seemed obdurate earlier this year in his opposition to any bill with guest-worker and legalization provisions. More recently, House Republican leaders have said they might consider such provisions in conference committee. Reid, having declared the bill dead, now says he might let it come to the floor with some amendments -- which is what he did after claiming to have "killed" the Patriot Act last year. Majority Leader Bill Frist, who sponsored a border-security-only bill, says he'll allow a more comprehensive bill on the floor.
You can see political calculation in all this. Hastert and Frist can see the long-term danger for Republicans in seeming hardhearted against Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Reid and Democrats can see the short-term danger in being viewed as killing a border-security law. Leaders in both parties don't want to be perceived as knuckling under to demonstrators brandishing Mexican flags. But they also don't want to be seen as continuing to ignore the fact that, on their watch, the border has become a sieve.