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NYT: Kennedy Plea Was Last Gasp for Immigration Bill

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/09/washington/09immig.html June 9, 2007 Kennedy Plea Was Last Gasp for Immigration Bill By CARL HULSE This article was reported
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 9, 2007
      June 9, 2007
      Kennedy Plea Was Last Gasp for Immigration Bill

      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
      interrelated reasons.

      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
      Immigration Bill."

      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
      his concerns.

      "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
      border security.

      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
      foreign professionals.

      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."
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