In the end, the reasons for the Senate immigration bill’s defeat may have been best summarized by one of its main supporters.
“A lot of Americans have lost faith in their government,” Sen. Jon Kyl, a dejected Republican dealmaker, told reporters after the second cloture vote failed last week. “They don’t think we can control our borders. They don’t think we can win a war. They don’t think we can issue passports.”
Endorsing the immigration pact crafted by Kyl, Kennedy, McCain, and the Bush White House required such a leap of faith. The bill’s proponents asked Americans to believe that overtaxed immigration bureaucracies with a backlog over 4 million deep could suddenly process millions of applications on short deadlines, separating seamlessly criminals from English-as-second-language students and the otherwise law-abiding while avoiding fraud.
They also implored us to accept that failed enforcement drives could be guaranteed to succeed by the same officials responsible for their failure. And they insisted that the electorate should be satisfied with the same amnesty now, enforcement later deal that did not deliver deliver back in 1986.
As harried staffers manning Capitol Hill phone and fax lines soon discovered, the constituents back home didn’t buy it. Faced with this deluge, many senators — including all but 12 of the chamber’s 49 Republicans — decided not to bet their reelection on legislation favored by barely a quarter of the American people.
The coalition behind the comprehensive approach to immigration reform was always fragile and to some extent contradictory. The bill would have legalized nearly all of the 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants here currently — and gradually moved us to a point system that would emphasize skills and economic contributions over family ties. With the exception of some business groups, it is difficult to find a constituency that simultaneously supports both of those ideas.
For senators who wanted to appear tough, the bill offered a security fence, an employee verification system, and various border-security benchmarks. Those who wanted to be lenient got a fairly liberal Z visa system, tax amnesty, and an eventual path to citizenship.
But pro-enforcement legislators wondered why the fence and other provisions that could have passed as stand-alone measures needed to be tied to the complicated question of what to do with the illegal immigrants already in the United States. And liberals feared that the path to citizenship was too convoluted and expensive. The guest worker program, designed to placate the bill’s Republican supporters, won enemies on both sides of the aisle. Even people who supported the ideas on which the measure was based ended up opposing it as unworkable in practice.
That’s how an immigration bill that was supposed to be passed by a left-right coalition was instead defeated by one. Conservative Republican freshmen like Tom Coburn, David Vitter, and Jim DeMint teamed with Jeff Sessions as they tried to reconnect their party with its base by staging a revolt against the president. Fifteen Democrats and independent socialist Bernie Sanders also broke ranks, including the celebrated economic populists who swept into the Senate during the 2006 election — Jim Webb, Jon Tester, and Sherrod Brown.
Meanwhile, many of the bill’s supporters were weak. They were willing to take the plunge for the controversial legislation — but only if everyone jumped together. That’s why throughout the deal’s troubled history, headlines proclaiming supermajority support in the Senate were always followed by votes where it failed to win a simple majority. At the first sign of trouble, the soft supporters bailed.
By changing his second cloture vote from yes to no, Sam Brownback became the symbol of these tepid senators — but he was hardly the only one. Nor were the bill’s prospects in the House much different, where Democratic leaders were said to be demanding the cover of at least 40 Republican congressmen before they would bring it up for a vote.
Rahm Emanuel wasn’t going to put his freshmen on the line unless the new Republican minority offered up some of its own endangered members.
Throughout the debates, the parties to the immigration deal pretended to believe most Americans were behind them but their overheated rhetoric gave them away. From the president accusing people who disagree with him of trying to “scare the American people” to Ted Kennedy’s rants about a Gestapo, they didn’t sound like they thought victory was assured.
On that much, they were absolutely right.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator..
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