Although Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist proclaimed “a huge breakthrough” Thursday in the Senate’s tortuous struggle to pass an immigration reform bill, the measure is a long way from being sent to the president's desk for his signature.
Two Republicans — one in the House and one in the Senate — personify the struggles ahead and the electoral repercussions of immigration. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R- Wisc., is one; freshman Sen. Mel Martinez, R- Fla., is the other.
Sensenbrenner did not make public his immediate reaction to the accord engineered by Martinez and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R- Neb.
The Senate bill would create a path for illegal immigrants to become legal residents of the United States. It would mandate that illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years pay a $2,000 fine, demonstrate knowledge of the English language, pass a criminal background check and meet other requirements.
But even if the bill is passed by the Senate, Sensenbrenner’s opposition could kill it when it gets to the House-Senate conference.
Sensenbrenner shepherded passage of his own bill that requires tougher border and workplace enforcement. But Sensenbrenner opposes the idea of illegal immigrants simply being able to “jump though hoops” and be given legal status.
Unusual Frist-Reid accord
At a chipper and unusual joint press conference just off the Senate floor Thursday Frist and Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who’d spent the previous week snarling at each other, gave the Martinez-Hagel bill their enthusiastic backing.
When I asked Frist about whether he’d had a chance to discuss the Martinez-Hagel plan with chairman Sensenbrenner, Reid stepped in and asked, “Chairman who?”
Sensenbrenner was much on the minds of supporters of the Martinez-Hagel approach.
“The one thing Democrats want an assurance of is this: if we get an agreement here, that it doesn’t go into conference (with House negotiators) and suddenly Sensenbrenner starts loading up a whole lot of nonsense and it comes out of conference in a form that we can’t support,” Sen. Barack Obama, D- Ill., told reporters Thursday after the Martinez-Hagel accord was announced.
Obama later warned of the scenario in which the Martinez-Hagel bill “gets hijacked” by the House-Senate conference committee.
McCain told reporters that a number of Republican senators would sign a letter to “guarantee that we would vote against” any House-Senate deal “that would destroy this very delicately crafted compromise.”
With his pessimistic view of illegal immigration’s effects, Sensenbrenner speaks for grass-roots Republicans and for House members in both parties who want only to crack down on those crossing the border.
Prediction of 20 million more
“If we don't do something effective and workable, we're going to have 20 million more illegal aliens in the next 10 years, according to a demographic study I've seen,” Sensenbrenner told CNN’s Lou Dobbs last week.
“They'll flood our schools. Our health care system will collapse. And our social services system will end up being overtaxed.” He predicted that if stricter border controls aren’t put in place, “we're going to see our economy collapse.”
While Martinez and Sensenbrenner stand at opposite poles, in the middle is Bush himself, the man who campaigned in 2000 on the slogan “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.”
Will Bush lean on Sensenbrenner and help the Martinez-Hagel bill get through the House?
“The president can be hugely helpful here” said Sen. Lindsey Graham R- S.C. who supports the Martinez-Hagel plan. “The president can lead us to a compromise.”
While Sensenbrenner has been around Capitol Hill for nearly 30 years, Martinez just got here in January 2005 after serving as Bush’s secretary of housing.
Refugee from Castro
Martinez, himself a refugee from Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, personifies the Bush strategy of recruiting Latinos to the conservative cause.
Talking to reporters Thursday after his bill was embraced by Frist and Reid, Martinez choked up when he said, “When I hear a school child in a classroom saying that I represent them, that’s an awesome responsibility to live up to and I hope I’ve done it well.”
When asked about Sensenbrenner, Martinez replied with a laugh, “I’ve never met Congressman Sensenbrenner. I intend to meet him.”
Martinez also said he’d conferred on his measure with Bush Thursday morning “and talked to Karl,” meaning Bush political strategist Karl Rove.
A lot of Republicans — like Rove, Bush and anti-abortion leader Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas — think Latinos, many of them illegal immigrants, are natural Republican voters and could be a bedrock of conservative strength in the future.
“The Hispanic community is generally family oriented, faith oriented, pro-life — these are exactly the sort of people we want to come into the United States as a real jolt of support for the things we’ve been talking about for a long time” Brownback told me this week.
Some Democrats see the same potential for new Latino voters bolstering their party.
Neither theory can be completely right. And neither may get a chance to be put to the test if Sensenbrenner prevails.