Against Odds, Immigration Effort Thrives

Posted April 23, 2010 at 6:39pm

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is pressing ahead with efforts to forge a bipartisan deal on comprehensive immigration legislation and will launch a series of meetings with Republicans and Democrats targeted as potential co-sponsors.

Schumer is expected to meet this week with GOP Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), George LeMieux (Fla.), Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) — all of whom President Barack Obama reached out to last week on the issue — in the hopes of finding Republican support for a compromise.

But despite support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Obama to take up the issue this year — even if it means not tackling energy and climate change legislation — many Democrats and nearly all Republicans appear dead set against the idea.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) said he “can’t imagine they could come up with the votes” to pass an immigration bill this year. When asked how much support leaders might be able to wring from moderate House Democrats, Altmire replied, “I would think none.”

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who for months has worked with Schumer on a comprehensive approach, threw cold water on the idea of moving legislation this year. Although Graham has not formally pulled out of negotiations with Schumer, he said the Senate should punt the issue until next year.

“If you do it and you fail, who will be the next group to take it up? … You could go a generation without taking it up because you get the hell beat out of you,” Graham said, adding that, “I think we should take it up next year in the new Congress.”

With moderates such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) already on record saying they don’t want to see the issue on the floor this year, Schumer and Reid’s only hope of moving legislation is to attract additional GOP backers.

But with Graham wavering — and other GOP moderates like Brown giving the idea a cool reception — that could prove impossible.

Even if Reid somehow is able to thread the needle in the Senate, there is a slim chance that House Democratic leaders would be able to sway enough wary members of their own caucus or fence-sitting Republicans to muster the necessary votes, particularly with the midterm elections drawing ever closer.

“The opportunity wasn’t there to start with,” said one senior Democrat who supports reform but doesn’t see any way to pass it, adding that “all the tough votes people here have already taken” makes the job even harder.

The immigration bill would cause much more blowback than even the energy bill did in many districts, the Democrat said, and Republicans have no political incentive to help out.

Immigration is an issue that deeply divides House Democrats, and even the chamber’s most vocal reform advocate — Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) — acknowledged late last week that Democrats won’t have the votes to go it alone on the issue, as they did on health care.

Gutierrez, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Immigration Task Force, estimated that there were “a little over 200 votes in the Democratic Caucus for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which includes a pathway to legalization for the undocumented,” but added that he thought there were “Republicans out there who are ready to come forward on this issue because they see the value of the issue both from a public policy perspective and from a political perspective of their party.”

Even if Gutierrez’s optimistic assessment is correct, finding the roughly 20 GOP lawmakers needed would be tough.

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) predicted “virtually no support” among Republicans for a comprehensive immigration bill this year. And even one of the party’s top reform proponents, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), was skeptical that he or any other Republicans would support a bill Democratic leaders would bring to the floor.

“If it’s truly comprehensive, I think you could pick up a couple Republican votes,” Flake said. “But given the way the Democratic leadership has operated so far this year, I doubt that that would be the case.”

Flake, who co-wrote a comprehensive bill with Gutierrez in 2007, said there are numerous factors standing in the way of getting a bill done, from the upcoming elections to the difficulty of striking a deal on a temporary worker program and tough enforcement provisions needed to get GOP support.

“I don’t think there’s much of a chance,” he said. “It’s tough enough in an odd-numbered year.”

Still, Hispanic lawmakers are encouraged by signs of movement in the Senate.

“I have little doubt that if the Senate is able to move a bill, that the House can complement what the Senate does,” Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said, although he added that Senate passage was a long shot.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.