Between a rock, a hard place, and a border

Posted: Jun 01, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- ``Why should we bother to reply to Kautsky?'' Lenin asked. ``He would reply to us, and we would have to reply to his reply. There is no end to that. It will be quite enough for us to announce that Kautsky is a traitor to the working class, and everyone will understand everything.'' The immigration debate, which is mostly among, and dangerous primarily to, Republicans, is becoming like that.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, denounces as ``selling American citizenship'' the provision in the Senate bill that requires illegal immigrants to pay back taxes and fines, a provision that its backers, such as John McCain, call ``earned citizenship.'' And last week McCain said that denying illegal immigrants Social Security and other entitlements is akin to forcing them to ``ride in the back of the bus.'' Regardless of what one thinks of his immigration policy and his aggressive rhetoric in its defense, one must admire his willingness to undo, by teaming with Ted Kennedy to pass ``earned citizenship" provisions, much of what he has assiduously done to ingratiate himself with conservatives.

As members of the House and Senate head for a conference to try to reconcile the stark and probably irreconcilable differences incorporated in their two immigration bills, Republicans are between a rock and a hard place. And another rock. And another.

First, if the conferees agree to anything like the Senate bill, the House will reject it -- if it comes to a vote. Speaker Dennis Hastert has a ``majority of the majority'' rule: Nothing comes to the floor that does not have the support of a majority of Republicans. Probably 75 percent of House Republicans -- including Sensenbrenner, who will probably be the lead House negotiator -- oppose the two pillars of the Senate bill, a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. Actually, there are three paths -- one for those who have been here five or more years, one for those who have been here between two and five years, and a path away from citizenship and the country for those who have been here less than two years. This plan, which is a huge incentive for the sort of traffic in fraudulent documents that is already pandemic, is to be enforced by a government that will not or cannot enforce existing immigration laws.

Second, if the conference agrees to anything like the House ``enforcement first and, for now, only'' bill, it will be rejected or filibustered to death in the Senate. All but six Democrats voted for the Senate bill, which a majority of Republicans opposed, so it has no momentum for respect among House Republican conferees.

Third, if any legislation is passed that contains any provision that can be stigmatized as ``amnesty,'' come November some of the Republican base, which is already boiling, will emigrate from the political process by not voting.

Fourth, if no immigration legislation is enacted, voters of various stripes may say, as voters said of congressional Democrats who were in disarray over a crime bill in the summer of 1994, these people cannot govern and should be given, like unruly 8-year-olds, a time out. The time out is now in its 12th year.

But if Congress fails to pass immigration reform, that will not really deserve to be called a failure, for two reasons. First, the moment may not be ripe for reform because the country is of two minds -- actually, more than two -- about the issue. Second, the system the Framers created, with two legislative bodies having different dynamics because their constituencies have different characteristics, is in this instance performing approximately as the Framers intended.

Senators, only one-third of whom are ever facing imminent elections, are somewhat insulated by six-year terms from the public's fevers. And senators represent larger, less homogenous, more complex constituencies than most House members do.

There is more to democracy than government by adding machine -- merely counting numbers. There also should be institutional ways of measuring, venting and accommodating the intensity of factions. The Senate does that by permitting filibusters. In the House, two-year terms guarantee that intensities are registered. As Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., recently told The Washington Post, ``House members' elections are not periods with us, they're just commas. We keep our finger on the public pulse all the time, not just every six years.''

The House is supposed to be the barometer that measures the political weather of the moment. It is not failing to do that.