Conservatives cheered last week when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the immigration proposal from the Senate floor. But don’t be taking any victory laps just yet. The bill is far from dead.
Only 18 hours after Reid shelved the bill, the White House was back at work. President Bush used his weekly radio address to urge the Democrat leader to “act quickly to bring this bill back to the Senate floor for a vote.” One hour later, the White House released “Best of the Immigration Fact Check: Top 10 Common Myths,” a compilation of the administration’s finest propaganda sound-bites from the last three weeks.
One conservative on Capitol Hill remarked, “A little late, isn’t it?” No, in fact, it’s not.
From the start of the immigration debate, the White House knew it might not be able to win the first round. But Bush has invested too much time and political capital in this issue to give up easily or quickly. After all, he wasn’t even in town when the bill flagged in the Senate. Half a world away -- at the G-8 meeting in Europe -- the president was in no position to twist arms as he did so successfully in 2003 to gain a razor-thin approval of the Medicare prescription drug bill in the House of Representatives.
This time, conservatives who opposed the bill were better organized. Even before the bill was completely drafted, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was calling it “amnesty,” setting the tone that led to its demise last week. Columnists, talk-show host and bloggers repeatedly attacked the bill’s provisions, prompting calls to congressional offices that ran, in some cases, 99 to 1 against the bill.
The next few weeks will be a crucial test for the bill’s supporters. The White House would certainly like to see the protests and anger come to a halt as conservatives declare victory, pat themselves on the back and head to the beach. But if conservatives lose focus now, there’s no telling whether they’ll be able to halt a renewed effort by the White House and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).
When conservatives successfully halted Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court, the White House showed it learned from its mistake by nominating a conservative in Sam Alito. But unlike the Miers debacle, the White House has no alternative this time. Bush is intent on pushing ahead with the same immigration bill. He made that clear in his radio address, arguing that -- when it comes to immigration reform -- “this bill is the best way to do it.”
The White House must be hoping that senators, having refused to accept the bill once, will feel less pressure from constituents to oppose it again. If the grassroots uproar subsides, that political strategy just might work.
But if the president really wants to make progress toward reforming the immigration system, he’d do better by dropping the failed “grand bargain” and pursuing an incremental reform strategy. Better to enact various components of the comprehensive bill on a piecemeal basis, beginning with the border-security measures and concluding with a vote on the Z-visas that provide amnesty to illegal aliens.
While this approach isn’t the one-step, all-inclusive fix that the White House wants, it would be a better way to legislate. It would also be a marked improvement from the closed-door deal making that was an affront to the Senate’s long tradition of being the world’s greatest deliberative body.
In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping the White House from enforcing the laws already on the books. National polls show the vast majority of Americans want the federal government to enforce existing immigration law and complete the border-security initiatives that Congress has already approved. The failure to do so thus far is why 49% of respondents to a Rasmussen poll last week said they’d rather have no bill at all than what the Senate was debating.
This year’s immigration debate has made one thing crystal clear: the White House is intent on winning “comprehensive” immigration reform. Its messaging operation was in overdrive for three solid weeks, producing eight fact sheets and four documents that “debunked” so-called “myths” about the bill. It dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Press Secretary Tony Snow to meetings of conservative leaders in Washington, D.C. Perhaps most surprisingly, it monitored conservative blogs such as RedState and National Review and dispatched counter-arguments to their criticisms with the kind of speed and intensity one would like to see among those charged with enforcing immigration law.
“They did everything on this bill that they haven’t done on the bills that we care about,” said one frustrated conservative Republican aide on Capitol Hill, citing the failure of Social Security reform, in particular.
The next few weeks will offer both the White House and conservatives an opportunity to work together and make nice -- but that can happen only with a fundamental change in the administration’s approach to comprehensive immigration reform. Strengthening national security and upholding the rule of law must take precedence over amnesty.