Senators Look for Immigration Deal

Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico, February 7, 2011

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have rekindled their alliance on immigration reform, taking some early steps to test the political will for addressing the contentious issue this year.

Their call list hasn’t focused so much on House and Senate members who’ve been reliable pro-immigration votes in the past. Instead, they’re looking to a strange-bedfellows mix of conservative and liberal constituencies that can provide a “safety net” of support, as Graham put it, once the issue heats up.

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For all the groups getting a call from the pair, it is the presence of Graham himself who elevates the odds–however bleak–that the Senate could move on a comprehensive, bipartisan overhaul bill. Graham abruptly departed the talks last spring and took with him any hope of getting a bill in the past Congress.

Now, conservative evangelicals, the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, business organizations and immigrant advocacy groups say they have gotten word from Schumer’s office that a renewed effort is under way. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce confirmed that it is back in the mix, after a hasty exit last year when Schumer proposed a legislative framework with a temporary worker program that favored labor unions.

And Schumer and his staff have quietly begun reaching out to some unlikely players in the Senate, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has professed a newfound freedom since winning reelection last year without the Republican Party’s help.

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The task won’t be easy. For starters, Republicans control the House, and they can’t say it often enough: A pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants won’t fly on their watch.

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Still, advocates of comprehensive reform see some reason for optimism.

Democrats believe the November elections put a bit of a scare into Republicans, who failed to capture the Senate in part because of strong Latino turnout in California, Nevada, Colorado and Washington. If the GOP hopes to win the White House in 2012, it will need to reverse that trend.

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House Republican leaders blocked Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a foe of illegal immigration with a penchant for harsh rhetoric, from taking over the immigration subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee–signaling that they are sensitive to the political pitfalls of alienating Latinos. Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has also shied away, at least for now, from pursuing the most divisive proposals, such as revoking birthright citizenship.

And in one closely watched comment, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) let it slip recently that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) “seems to think that there’s a shot at this.” It led to a round of speculation that the McCain of the past, the senator who ushered a comprehensive bill through the chamber in 2006, might be ready to come back.

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