The Senate immigration bill failed a second key cloture vote 45-50, failing to get a simple majority much less the 60 votes needed to end debate. This means that the legislation is all but dead, though it could always rise again. Not very long ago, the conventional wisdom was that it could pass the Senate with 70-75 votes. What happened?
Even though there was a very favorable political climate for the so-called comprehensive approach to immigration reform — a Democratic Congress, a sympathetic Republican president, important Republican senators who decided it was better to cut a deal now than face the kind of bill that could pass after the 2008 elections — the legislation has faltered for the same reason last year’s Hagel-Martinez compromise failed.
First, to dodge charges of amnesty, these bills make illegal immigrants jump through all kinds of hoops to gain legal status. But on careful examination, it usually turns out that these hoops are either window dressing or administratively unworkable. This particular bill contained a Z visa feature and other disincentives for the path to citizenship that made it not too difficult to predict how illegal immigration might persist after its enactment. All these bills pretend that an overtaxed immigration bureaucracy can seamlessly work through 12 to 20 million applications in a short period of time to weed out the kinds of immigrants we wouldn’t want to legalize.
So the debate ends up getting mired in technical details. These details take on a special importance because of differences within the coalition behind comprehensive legislation — its Republican supporters emphasize labor, its Democratic supporters see new voters. Consequently, Democrats emphasize pathways to citizenship while Republicans emphasize guest workers. The specific requirements to qualify for some kind of legal employment status therefore can and often do split the coalition.
These bills also always attract a strong public outcry which makes soft supporters in Congress back away from them. Proponents like to point to polls showing large majorities endorsing concepts like earned citizenship and opposing mass deportations. But these concepts aren’t the same as the actual legislation and understate the opposition of those who care most.
Finally, with regards to this bill, it was clear the Democrats were getting what they wanted first and the Republicans getting their provisions later. This problem was compounded by the fact that many Democrats seemed willing to revisit the bill to make it more unfavorable to the GOP in the next Congress.