Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) allies on immigration reform regard his departure from the Judiciary Committee as a withering blow to their cause and are searching for a new champion on the controversial issue.
Many are interpreting his decision to focus on healthcare as a setback to legislation that would put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
Kennedy’s own health has some speculating that the liberal icon sees healthcare as his best chance to augment his legacy while he battles brain cancer.
Some see his decision to leave his post as chairman of the Judiciary Immigration subcommittee as a sign that Democrats will hold off on the topic in the 111th Congress.
“I’ve had this conversation with a couple people and I would say that Kennedy’s loss from the Judiciary Committee is disappointing,” said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was a major supporter of Kennedy’s legislation. “It will adversely affect immigration reform going forward. It indicates the chances of comprehensive reform happening over the next few years are slim.”
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in previous interviews has said the Senate will take up immigration reform in the 111th Congress, some proponents doubt President-elect Obama and Democrats will make the issue a top priority during the first years of his administration.
Rahm Emanuel, who will serve as White House chief of staff, predicted last year that immigration reform would not happen in the first term of a Democratic presidency.
Emanuel, who has seen immigration as a dangerous issue for Democrats, repeatedly battled members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to block consideration of an immigration package in the House while he was a member of the House Democratic leadership.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is next in line on the Immigration subcommittee. Immigration reform advocates describe Feinstein as a “fair” and “independent” legislator but not as passionate an advocate as Kennedy. She could also have her hands full if chosen as chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence next year.
Indeed, few lawmakers seem eager to play as prominent role as Kennedy—even logical successors such as Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who is one of three Hispanic senators.
A Salazar aide said his boss will play the same role in the immigration debate as he has in the past.