NYT: Kennedy Plea Was Last Gasp for Immigration Bill
June 9, 2007
Kennedy Plea Was Last Gasp for Immigration Bill
By CARL HULSE
This article was reported by Carl Hulse, Robert Pear and Jeff Zeleny
and written by Mr. Hulse.
WASHINGTON, June 8 It was the moment of truth for legislation that
would make the most profound changes in immigration policy in more
than 20 years.
Desperate to salvage a measure in which he and others had invested
months, Senator Edward M. Kennedy headed to the secluded Capitol suite
of Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, to make one last personal
Mr. Kennedy, an immigration advocate since his first days in the
Senate nearly 45 years ago, hoped to persuade Mr. Reid to delay a
procedural vote that could kill the measure. As the two met shortly
after 7 p.m. on Thursday in the well-appointed office that overlooks
the Mall, Mr. Reid told Mr. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, that
Republicans would just endlessly stall the bill and that it was time
to move on. Mr. Reid had already granted enough extensions.
Just minutes before that meeting, Senate Republicans in the middle of
the immigration fight had ended an hours-long huddle at which they
argued over what demands they would make in exchange for agreeing to
cap the debate time. But they could not see eye to eye among
themselves and ultimately filed empty-handed out of the office of
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.
Within two hours, the centerpiece of President Bush's remaining
domestic agenda and what many people saw as the best chance to get a
handle on the worsening immigration problem, was yanked from the
floor. Two weeks of debate had failed to stem attacks from critics on
the right and left; 38 Republicans, 11 Democrats and 1 independent
rejected Mr. Reid's call to limit debate and head toward a resolution.
This account is based on interviews with senators, administration
officials and others who spent much of the week in the Capitol as the
Senate debated the bill.
"People on opposite sides of the political spectrum, in effect, banded
together to defeat the middle," said James G. Gimpel, a professor at
the University of Maryland who has written a book on the politics of
immigration. "Restrictionists on the right were always against the
bill because they opposed any legalization for illegal immigrants.
"Business groups and their allies, including advocates for immigrant
rights, lost much of their ardor for the bill because of changes made
in the legislative process."
That vote might have been the telling blow for the measure. Lawmakers,
officials and activists engaged in creating and at least for the
moment unraveling the bill say it was undone for complex and
The leaderships of both parties kept their distance from the start.
Mr. Reid, Democrat of Nevada, was ambivalent about the policy and
political merits of the approach. Mr. McConnell, his counterpart,
found himself caught among diehard Republican opponents, lawmakers
open to persuasion and a president eager for a victory.
President Bush found himself at odds with many in his own party. And
there was little appetite in the House for the bills among Democrats
or Republicans, hence adding little pressure on the Senate to produce.
The creation of the bill, too, was highly unorthodox. Even
participants in the private negotiations that led to the so-called
grand bargain say their very approach created problems, producing
contentious legislation embraced by the participants but met with
skepticism by other lawmakers, the public and groups like organized
labor and conservative research organizations. "The chance to create
meaningful immigration reform legislation was lost the moment the bill
emerged from its closed-door meeting with an immediate path to amnesty
for anywhere from 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants,"
Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said in hailing the
defeat of the bill.
"This agreement was reached between a handful of senators," said
Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, one of the Democrats who balked
and voted against limiting debate. "That should not be considered a
substitute for deliberation by the full Senate."
As lawmakers began to contend with the collapse of the bill, the
effort to distribute blame picked up where the debate left off.
The office of Mr. Reid, who had emphatically sought to hold
Republicans accountable for sabotaging a presidential priority,
distributed a document titled "Republicans Brought Down the
It listed news reports and Republican statements that put the onus on
the president's party. "Last night, Republicans torpedoed
comprehensive immigration reform," the statement said.
Republicans fired back, saying Mr. Reid never embraced the bill and
had, rather skillfully in some people's opinion, set up Republicans to
take the fall.
Republican officials insisted that they could have reached an accord
within days on a limited number of about 12 amendments if Mr. Reid had
given them more time.
They said the argument that the Senate had more pressing business was
refuted by the fact that the chamber was not in session on Friday and
was scheduled to vote on Monday on a nonbinding resolution of no
confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
"Harry Reid was not willing to let this thing run its course," said
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.
Members of the bipartisan coalition that wrote the measure promised
that they would continue to press their case and would urge Mr. Reid
to return to the debate at some point, perhaps as quickly as next week.
"When it is recognized by the American people that the Senate has not
acted, I believe there's going to be a wave of support for what we've
been trying to do," said Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of
Pennsylvania, another author of the plan.
President Bush, who will meet Republican senators at the Capitol for
their weekly Tuesday luncheon in an appearance scheduled before the
bill stalled, used his radio address to "urge Senator Reid to act
quickly to bring this bill back to the Senate floor for a vote, and I
urge Senators from both parties to support it."
He called Senate Republican leaders on Friday from Air Force One while
traveling in Europe to discuss the bill.
Senior Senate officials and lawmakers said they believed that the bill
had less than a 50-50 chance of being resurrected and that there was
already talk about considering separately some of the more popular
provisions like allowing agricultural workers and education aid for
certain immigrant children. "The White House has so far failed to
rally Senate Republicans behind tough, fair and practical immigration
reform," Mr. Reid said in a statement Friday. "I will bring the
immigration bill back to the Senate floor as soon as enough
Republicans are ready to join us in moving forward on a bill to fix
our broken immigration system."
Throughout the course of the proceedings, the majority leader was
lukewarm. As the floor debate opened two weeks ago, Mr. Reid delivered
a tepid endorsement, though few senators were present as he cataloged
"The bill impacts families in a number of ways that I believe are
unwise," Mr. Reid said. Requiring guest workers to go back and forth
to their home countries every few years was "impractical both for the
workers and for the American employers who need a stable, reliable
work force," he said. He also feared that the bill would create "a
permanent underclass of people who are here to work in low-wage,
low-skill jobs but do not have a chance to put down roots."
Yet, Mr. Reid let the measure proceed. He urged the bipartisan
coalition to smooth over disagreements quickly. He did not want the
bill to linger beyond week's end.
In the hours leading up to the collapse, Mr. Reid looked weary, with
dark circles surrounding his eyes. As he walked back to the Senate
floor at 4:30, his voice carried barely a trace of optimism. "We've
done more than our share," he said, pausing for a moment. "We've sent
all the signals we can to get the president to help. It's his bill."
It was that mindset that helped contribute to the failure, aides who
have been enmeshed in the bill for months said in interviews.
Some proponents began to worry on Tuesday, when Mr. Reid sought to end
the debate and move to a final vote. That action took Mr. Kennedy and
others by surprise, Senate aides said. On Wednesday, Mr. Kennedy
confronted Mr. Reid.
For the bill to succeed, Mr. Kennedy argued, making major changes to
immigration laws could not be expedited. Already, opponents of the
measure had done a better job of defining the bill, and proponents
said more time was needed to explain it, particularly the parts on
Mr. McConnell had his hands full, as well. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona,
the No. 3 Republican, was an architect of the compromise. Others, like
Mr. Cornyn, were critical but professed willingness to consider the
measure if it were revised. Some, like Senators Jeff Sessions of
Alabama and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, saw little hope of repairing
the plan. Mr. DeMint even objected to Republican amendments on
Thursday on the floor.
As those lawmakers and a handful of others clustered in Mr.
McConnell's rooms, they were unable to resolve the demands of the
chief opponents for votes on their amendments.
As the meeting stretched on, party aides shot updates to Democratic
members of the immigration coalition via BlackBerry devices. Officials
said Mr. Reid also called Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South
Carolina, to encourage him to come up with a finite list of amendments.
"We kept asking them to give us a set number of amendments and a
deadline to finish and they would never do it," said Senator Charles
E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
Although they rarely publicly voiced their opposition, the muscle of
organized labor worked vigorously behind the scenes to defeat the
measure. A key concern was the guest worker program.
Although dozens of amendments from senators were never called, Senator
Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, had three chances to offer
amendments to eliminate or set an end date on guest workers, because
the leadership wanted to balance the scales after the Republicans had
won major changes.
The proposal to end the guest worker program after five years passed
just after midnight on Thursday morning.
Criticism from high-tech figures stunned authors of the bill who had
set out to help companies recruit top scientists, engineers and
mathematicians. E. John Krumholtz, director of federal affairs at
Microsoft, said senators "really wanted to help us" find skilled
Mr. Krumholtz said the agreement was "worse than the status quo, and
the status quo is a disaster."
The outcome left many lawmakers frustrated. Mr. Kyl noted that
senators mingled on the floor for more than an hour after the
decision, "because there seemed to be a sense that it couldn't end
with that vote."