Political Hay

For Their Next Act

After the health care juggernaut, don't assume that amnesty or any other liberal policy initiative is off the table.

By 3.30.10

Having just steamrolled the American public on health care, our representatives who would be rulers may be about to turn their attention to "comprehensive immigration reform." That was the message sent by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) Sunday as they mugged for the cameras on Meet the Press.

"We're real close," Schumer purred, suggesting he had come up with a magic bullet to pass an amnesty everyone will love: "[W]e have business and labor ready to sign on, we have all the religious community -- not just the liberals but the evangelicals -- we even have Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly saying positive things about our proposal." The lion shall lie down with the lamb, MSNBC will lie down with Fox News.

All Schumer needs, he said, was one more Republican like Lindsey Graham. John McCain is apparently otherwise occupied, perhaps by his primary opponent former Congressman J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ). Graham pledged to do his part, vowing, "I will continue to work with Chuck on immigration." But he downplayed their prospects for success.

"If a moderate Democrat got a phone call from the president, he wants you to come down to the White House and help him with immigration now, most of them would jump out the window," Graham argued. "That's just the truth." Their "political capital," as George W. Bush might put it, has already been spent on health care.

That would certainly seem to be the case. Amnesty failed when the Republican-controlled House defied a president of their own party and a bipartisan group of senators in 2006. A similar proposal stalled after the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007. The idea went nowhere at all in 2009, with Democrats in charge of all the elected branches of the federal government.

Why would a controversial bill that has failed repeatedly suddenly look attractive to congressional Democrats who've already been made to walk the plank on health care? If immigration will send red-state Democrats hurtling through the windows this election year, Obamacare should already have had them out on the ledge. That is especially true for Democrats who promised their constituents everything from the public option to the antiabortion Stupak Amendment, only to return home empty-handed.

But the conventional wisdom was that Scott Brown's election would stick a fork in the Democrats' health care plans. The logic was that if they couldn't hold onto Ted Kennedy's Senate seat by running on reform in Massachusetts, what hope was there for dozens of congressional Democrats who won in swing districts in 2006 and 2008? As Brown took office, all signs in Washington pointed to Democratic retreat and retrenchment.

Instead of reversing course, the Democratic leadership cried full speed ahead. They could afford to lose congressional seats, they reasoned, but not an opportunity to reshape one-sixth of the American economy. Moreover, they believed that if they failed the electorate would punish them anyway for not getting anything done. So Barack Obama's party used its big majorities to muscle a health care bill into law.

On immigration as opposed to health care, they can count on at least token Republican support. Ditto cap and trade, where eight House Republicans defected to help pass the Waxman-Markey bill at a minimal cost to industrial-state Democrats. Two of those Republicans may be promoted to the Senate, where -- you guessed it -- Lindsey Graham is already working to provide bipartisan cover to a revivified cap-and-trade campaign.

How many risky votes can congressional Democrats afford to take? Only three House Democrats voted against all three of the biggest liberal policy initiatives of the Obama administration: the stimulus package, cap and trade, and health care. Two of them hail from the districts hardest to keep out of Republican hands; the third is Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS), who may be the last real conservative Democrat in Congress.

If you think the party leadership will be afraid to take the risk, think again. Hoosier Democratic bosses handpicked Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-IN) to run to succeed Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) precisely because he would have the freedom to be too conservative for his party's primary electorate and maybe just moderate enough for Indiana. The national Democratic bigwigs prodded Ellsworth to vote for one version of the health care bill that contained the public option and then vote for another one lacking an ironclad ban on abortion subsidies, both political losers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) himself has made an already precarious re-election fight even tougher through his role on health care. His is going to have to plead for another term having jeopardized state budgets, imposed an individual mandate, raised taxes, increased premiums, and gutted House language guarding against taxpayer funding of abortion.

The only thing that can stop amnesty, cap and trade, a whole host of unpopular policies in their tracks is a successful campaign to convince congressional Democrats they are doing more to endanger their standing with current voters than to create future Democratic voters through the growth of government.

Who strikes more fear into the heart of a Democratic congressman from a swing district? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, or that congressman's own constituents? So far, Rahm and Nancy are winning.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter @jimantle.