Republicans face the bigger political split on immigration. A large part of their base feels strongly about the issue and wants border security beefed up and immigration cut. But Democrats are split, too. Part of their base -- including many black politicians and voters -- sees immigrants as competitors for low-skill jobs. Most Democratic politicians have been willing to support generous guest-worker and legalization provisions. But not all their base is on board.
A columnist is tempted to say that the politicians should toss aside political concerns and do what they believe is in the public interest. Easy enough to say. But something just like that may be happening. Politicians act out of some combination of calculation and conviction -- the proportions vary. On immigration, there are some politicians, of both parties and on both sides, who are visibly acting out of conviction. And not just the noisy immigration restrictionists, like Rep. Tom Tancredo, who wants a border fence.
These conviction politicians include Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain, who favor relatively generous guest-worker and legalization provisions, and Sens. Jon Kyl and John Cornyn, who favor a less generous version. Add to this list George W. Bush, who seems poised to take an unusually active role on the issue.
The route to agreement is to give all of these conviction politicians much of what they want. A fence, high-tech border-security and identification devices, some compromise on guest workers and legalization -- all could be part of an omnibus measure. As for the calculation politicians, as they try to assess the political landscape and reconcile the seemingly contradictory findings of various polls, they appear to be coming to the conclusion that inaction -- or blocking action now that the issue is so visible -- poses a higher political risk than taking action.
Voters understandably believe we should have better border security and should do something about the 12 million illegal immigrants in our midst. Neither Congress nor President Bush has acted in five years. Maybe, just maybe, they're on the brink of doing so now.