WASHINGTON — The Senate rejected Wednesday an attempt to move ahead with a bill to allow illegal immigrants under age 30 to remain in the United States and gain legal status if they attend college or join the military.
The vote to move ahead on the Dream Act (the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), got 52 votes, eight short of the 60 needed.
Among those voting against moving ahead with the bill were eight Democrats, even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appealed to his majority to back him.
But this was yet another case when the Democratic majority was not a true working majority. Senate rules require a supermajority of 60 to advance most bills.
The vote was a significant leading indicator for 2008 of the potency of illegal immigration as an election issue.
Implications for 2008
Illegal immigration remains at a legislative impasse — and that may be a good thing for GOP chances since the party’s base in the South and West tends to be vehemently opposed to any accommodation with illegal immigrants.
In his post-vote assessment, the Dream Act’s chief sponsor, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said, “In a campaign year, it is a very difficult issue. If it’s tough this year, it’s tougher next year.”
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“Switchboards light up, the hates starts spewing, and people get concerned, to say the least,” Durbin told reporters.
Twelve Republicans joined most Democrats in voting to proceed.
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Two of the Republican senators in competitive races next year, Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Susan Collins of Maine, voted to push ahead with the bill.
But two other GOP senators in tight races, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Gordon Smith of Oregon, voted against it.
People in Montana 'outraged'
Sen. Max Baucus of Montana — who is up for re-election next year — said the Dream Act was “huge, huge” as an issue on the minds of people in his state.
“People are very upset, they’re outraged; it’s like amnesty, it’s virtually the same” he said after casting his “no” vote.
Mail, phone calls, and e-mail on the issue pouring into his office were “off the wall,” Baucus said.
Most Montanans, he said, believed the bill would have given an unfair benefit to illegal immigrants.
Baucus’s freshman Democratic colleague from Montana Sen. Jon Tester also voted “no,” as did another freshman Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
Southern Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Robert Byrd of West Virginia all voted against the Dream Act.
Most analysts see Landrieu as the most endangered Senate Democrat up for re-election next year.
Pryor, too, is up for re-election in 2008.
Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain of Arizona was absent for the vote, even though he’d been present for a vote just an hour earlier on the nomination of appeals court judge Leslie Southwick.
The bill would have allowed illegal immigrants, if they passed background checks and became permanent legal residents, to qualify for lower in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities, a point cited by Sen. Kent Conrad, D- N.D, who voted “no.”
Conrad explained that from his constituents in North Dakota, “I was hearing, ‘wait a minute, this is more generous than what we’re doing for people who were born in this country.’ And it’s certainly commendable to want to give this kind of educational assistance to people. But how can you justify that when we don’t do it for people who were raised in our country?”
From North Dakotans, Conrad said, “What I hear is, ‘look, you’ve got to secure the border. That’s got to be priority number one.’”
Fellow North Dakotan, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, joined Conrad in voting “no.”
Penalizing children for their parents' actions
To be eligible for the bill, the illegal immigrants would have to have been 15 years old or younger when they arrived in the United States.
Reid argued that “children should not be penalized for the actions of their parents. Many of the children come here when they’re very, very young; many don’t even remember their home countries or speak the language of their home countries.”
“Why good does it do anybody to prevent these young people from having a future?”
But the Dream Act’s foes said illegal immigrants did have a future — outside the United States.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., urged those in the United States illegally “to go home and sign up for a legal program. We can do that in an orderly way.”
Assessing Democrats' motives
DeMint said the American people had delivered a message last year when the Senate scuttled a broader immigration bill that they did not want any legalization for those in the country illegally.
“I think it will make people even madder if we’re trying to sneak this through under the guise of ‘doing something for the children,’” he said Tuesday.
DeMint’s assessment of the vote was that Democrats “were just trying to go through the checklist” for their constituency groups.
“They are probably hoping Republicans will stop it,” he mused Tuesday. “I think they’d like to take credit for trying,” but not actually pass the bill.
Then he added, “Maybe I’m too cynical.”
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