The back-from-the-dead Senate immigration bill has veered along the most unpredictable course of any legislation in recent memory.
It’s a weird bill in the array of unorthodox alliances it has created: both the AFL-CIO and Rush Limbaugh oppose it, while the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page and liberal giant Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Mass., are striving to enact it.
Only the foolhardy would predict whether it will be alive or dead by week’s end.
But here’s one way to see where it is heading. Consider two senators, Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman and Virginia Democrat Jim Webb.
Each has an amendment he wants added to the bill. Each has indicated if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll likely vote no.
Despite the peculiar alliances created by the bill, there’s one normal aspect to all of this: in a closely divided Senate, any one senator can say, “If I don’t get what I want, I won’t vote for the bill” — and that one “no” vote can doom it.
Will they vote 'no' as they promised?
The bill's fate depends on whether Webb and Coleman get the amendments they want — but more importantly, it depends on whether they follow through on their promised “no” votes if they don’t get their way.
Coleman and Webb are akin in some ways: both men have switched parties during their public lives. Once a Democrat, Coleman joined the GOP in 1996. Webb, a Democrat, joined the Republicans and served President Reagan as his Navy secretary; then renewed his Democratic identity as Senate candidate last year.
Both men survived extremely close races. Webb was elected by a sliver-thin margin of four-tenths of one percent last November over Republican George Allen.
Coleman, elected in 2002 with only 49 percent, faces a tough re-election battle next year, likely against Democrat author-comedian Al Franken.
Webb and Coleman voted Tuesday to proceed with debate on the immigration bill, but both emphasized they need to see changes in it.
Webb tries to 'save the bill'
“I have an amendment that I think will save the bill,” Webb told reporters Tuesday. “If my amendment succeeds, I will more than likely vote for it — unless something else happens on the bill.”
Later he added, “If my amendment succeeds, I’ll support the bill and if not, I won’t — unless there’s something similar in there and I don’t see it in the other amendments” that will be voted on in the next three days.
Under the current version of the bill, being an illegal immigrant in the United States as of Jan. 1, 2007 is sufficient to apply for legal status.
But Webb’s amendment would allow only illegal immigrants who have been in the United States at least four years prior to enactment of the bill to apply for legal status.
Those who entered the U.S. more recently could not become legal and would be — at least in theory — subject to being deported.
Making fewer eligible for legalization
Webb said his goal is to “narrow the pool” of illegal people eligible for legalization “to a level Americans can feel comfortable with in terms of fairness.”
On the other hand Webb’s amendment would not require those seeking legalization to return to their country of origin — the so-called “touchback” — before they begin the legalization process.
“If my amendment succeeds, I think it will save the bill because, on the one hand, it puts a rational time frame (on those eligible for legalization) in terms of when people came here,” he said. “On the other hand it eliminates the touchback requirement which is totally impractical.”
Those eligible for legalization would apply to the Department of Homeland Security which would review their applications to see whether they met certain criteria, such as work history and knowledge of English. If they met the criteria, they could apply for legal status and ultimately for citizenship.
The Virginia Democrat said, “There are a lot of people in America who would normally support a fair approach to immigration, but say ‘Where is the fairness in American law when you just say that everyone who was here as of Dec. 31 should be legalized?’ My amendment addresses that.”
On the other side of the aisle, Coleman is pushing an amendment that would put limits on “sanctuary cities” that have opened their doors to illegal immigrants by declaring that police would not inquire into the immigration status of people who call for assistance or who are arrested.
“We have people here on over-extended visas. And we have cities that say ‘you can’t enforce the law.’ One of the problems we have is that people don’t think we’re serious about enforcing the law,” Coleman said.
According to the Congressional Research Service, cities from Los Angeles to Minneapolis have adopted such policies.
Rules for police inquiries
Coleman’s amendment would tell local governments they could not prohibit police officers from asking a person about his immigration status, if the officer had probable cause to think the person was not lawfully present in the United States.
“I’d still like to see a bill, but I’d like to see my amendment and Lindsey Graham has an amendment that is important. If these amendments don’t get passed, then I’m going to have to decide what I’m going to do,” the Minnesota Republican said.
Graham's amendment would require illegal immigrants who intend to apply for legal status to leave the United States within three years and return to their home country before applying. It would also crack down on foreign visitors who overstay their visas.
Coleman said, “If we improve the bill, then I could vote for it. If it is not improved, then I will vote against it.”
Asked whether his own amendment must be part of the bill in order for him to vote for it, Coleman said, “I’d be hard pressed to support this bill” if it isn’t.
“If my piece doesn’t pass, you’re literally saying ‘the law needs to be enforced, we need to deal with this issue, but we’re going to gag police officers.’ That’s the wrong signal to send.”
So will the immigration bill live or die?
In a tale that’s had a dozen twists and turns so far, these two senators used to dramatic outcomes may determine the bill’s fate — and make more drama before the Senate immigration battle is over.