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Come One, Come All

On the Senate's agenda for 2009: comprehensive immigration reform.

By 5.30.08

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Everyone knows that Republicans are more skeptical of immigration than Democrats are. And everyone knows that the November election will be hell on Senate Republicans. So simple logic indicates that immigration restrictionists will lose ground by the year's end.

This, though, is an understatement. The seats that might change hands this November are not only Republican seats, but they're occupied by politicians who voted against last year's amnesty. That's far from redundant, as no fewer than 12 Republicans joined with the Democrats on S. 1639. The election might put pro-immigration forces above the threshold needed to pass a similar bill.

Election predictions are a messy business. One quick-and-easy way to tell which Senate seats might switch is to consult Intrade, a website where users bet on political races. A candidate's share price indicates his odds of winning. According to Intrade, 12 seats have at least a 25 percent chance of switching parties, using this method.

Republicans currently hold 11 of these, with Louisiana's Mary Landrieu the sole Democrat. Two additional Republicans are retiring and, in all likelihood, leaving their seats to other Republicans.

The debate last year was complicated -- immigration advocates introduced a bill, lost, revised it, and introduced it again. Each try had two votes, the first to bring it up for consideration, the second to invoke cloture and thus avoid the normal committee-review process. The latter required 60-vote majorities.

Once the Senate caved, it would have been reasonably clear sailing, with House Republicans a minority and the president committed to signing the bill.

THANKS TO A full-on assault by the conservative media, and some very angry constituent phone calls, both attempts failed. In fact, the first cloture vote proved a complete disaster, and even the second -- the do-or-die one -- failed to gain the support of a simple majority. (You can see a spreadsheet of the votes here, and more here and here.)

The vulnerable seats were a crucial part of the second vote's failure. Eleven of the 12, with the now-retired Trent Lott as the exception, voted no.

It's hard to look ahead without wincing. Take, for example, the three threatened seats where the incumbents are retiring. New Mexico is all but lost: Three House members are vying to replace Republican Pete Domenici. For politicians who have had to cast votes in the federal government, Numbers USA provides report cards, breaking immigration down into categories that include "Amnesties." Steve Pearce (R) has an F-. So does Heather Wilson (R). So, too, does Tom Udall (D).

In Colorado, the likely Republican nominee left the House with an A+ in the "Amnesties" category, but his Democratic opponent has an F-. In Virginia, Republican Jim Gilmore opposes amnesty, but it's hard to tell what his opponent thinks.

The races with anti-amnesty incumbents facing possible defeat aren't encouraging, either, though they're just getting started. Only one likely challenger, Tom Allen of Maine, has a Numbers USA grade on the subject: F-. Al Franken, unless he's joking, wants a "path to citizenship." So does Rick Noriega. Kay Hagan wants a "practical solution."

The websites of Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Begich, and Jeff Merkley don't contain the word "immigration," which can't be good. Ditto for the fact that Landrieu's challenger used to be a Democrat too.

The special election for Lott's seat is a muddled picture. Roger Wicker, a Republican, has a C on amnesties. The Democrat, Ronnie Musgrove, wants "meaningful immigration reform."

Two Republican retirees will probably leave their seats to other Republicans, though, and this provides a silver lining: Chuck Hagel and Larry Craig said "yea" last year (the latter took a wide stance for amnesty), but the newcomers disagree. Nebraska's nominee promises a no vote, and so does Idaho's.

SO WHEN THE FIGHT resumes in 2009 -- and it will -- it will be tougher to kill an amnesty bill. An astute observer might point out, however, that last year cloture had only 46 supporters -- this legislation will definitely inspire a filibuster, and there's no way November's musical chairs will bring in an additional 14 yes-voters.

But not so fast. The Senate passed a similar measure in 2006 -- when both houses of Congress were Republican-controlled -- with 62 votes. (The House passed a much stricter bill, and the two never made it out of the reconciling conference committee as one.) Even last year, a filibuster-proof majority -- 69 and 64 senators -- voted to consider and debate such a bill.

The Senate failed to arrive at a compromise that satisfied enough people, which is hardly surprising, considering the ridiculously small amount of time they had to consider hundreds of pages of controversial legislation without the help of committees. The next Senate will presumably give members more time.

There are lots of policies they can adjust to attract supporters as needed -- if they get confident they can include the DREAM Act, which gives education benefits to illegal-immigrant college students; if they're desperate to reel in a few borderline senators, they can ramp up the enforcement provisions.

The latter, better strategy, coupled with a few more open-borders politicians, might put the legislation over the top.

DESPITE THE DAUNTING task of defeating such a bill in the Senate, it will be the restrictionists' best hope. The House will become more Democratic than it already is, and an open-borders advocate will reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

There is a chance that they will fail. The open-borders folks could push for too liberal a bill, losing senators who want at least a credible attempt at enforcement. Restrictionists could help that happen with poison-pill amendments.

Or maybe President McCain was telling the truth when he vowed that, despite his leadership on and whole-hearted support of the 2007 bill, he'd give in to the American people and make sure enforcement came first in the future.

Ha ha.

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About the Author
Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor at National Review. You can follow his writing here.