TOPICS > Politics

Senate Fails to Move Forward on Immigration Bill

June 28, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), Louisiana: This recent vote was a great victory, not for any individual senator, but for the American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: The handful of conservative Republicans who helped kill the immigration bill today credited the American people for bombarding senators’ offices with calls opposed to the deal.

CONGRESSIONAL AIDE: Hello, Senator Sessions’ office?

CONGRESSIONAL AIDE: Senator Sessions’ office?

SEN. JIM DEMINT (R), South Carolina: Our phones have been ringing off the hooks, e-mails, letters. People are trying to get in touch with us. Even now they’re calling in such numbers that it’s crashed the telephone system here in the Senate. My question to the Senate today is: What part of “no” don’t we understand?

KWAME HOLMAN: Most Republicans argued the bill granted unacceptable amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants already here. They also blamed Democratic leader Harry Reid for restricting the number of amendments they could offer and limiting their time to speak.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: The procedure used to get us at this point is unprecedented in the history of the Senate, to allow the leadership to approve every single amendment that gets voted on and give us only 10 minutes in opposition this morning, while the masters of the universe get over 40 minutes, 50 minutes to promote their side, typical of the way this debate has gone.

KWAME HOLMAN: Those Republicans who did support the bill said they just could not change their colleague’s minds. Jon Kyl of Arizona.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: Most issues are not like this, but this is one where you come to the position, and it doesn’t much matter what a friend or colleague or the president or anybody else says to you, you believe that’s what’s best for your particular state.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: I am very disappointed that we weren’t able to pass this legislation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic proponents also lost support within their party, including members from rural states with growing illegal immigrant populations. Nonetheless, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer said walking away from comprehensive immigration reform at this point is unacceptable.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: This is a sad day for America. Everyone knows that our immigration laws are broken, and a country loses some of its greatness when it can’t fix a problem that everyone knows is broken.

What the bill would have meant

KWAME HOLMAN: The bill would have coupled tough border enforcement and employment verification measures with a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country. It also would have created a new guest-worker system and made dramatic changes to the legal migration system, as well.

This morning, as the Senate headed toward the do-or-die vote, the pro-compromise forces, needing 60 votes to stay alive, pleaded with their colleagues.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: And it would be my hope that the Senate would rise to the occasion and would not kill this bill, because if it is done, it's finished for the year. Next year is a presidential-congressional election. We're off to 2009 and beyond, and then it will only be worse.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, President Bush's cabinet officials hovered outside the Senate chamber hoping to persuade wavering members as they got off the elevators. Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, a chief architect of the bill and a 45-year veteran of the Senate, tried reminding colleagues of some of the body's past landmark legislative decisions on civil rights, voting rights, and religion.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: And when the Senate was called upon, it brought out its best instincts, it brought out its best values, it brought out its best traditions, and we saw this nation move forward. Who among us would retreat on any of those commitments? Who among us would say no to any of that great march for progress that we had in this nation?

And today, my friends, we have the choice: Are we going to vote for our hopes, or are we going to vote for our fears? Are we going to vote for our future, or are we going to vote for our past?

KWAME HOLMAN: But the vote wasn't even close, falling 14 votes short, failing to reach even a simple majority of senators.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), Ohio: The motion is not agreed to.

KWAME HOLMAN: For President Bush, what he hoped to be a crowning domestic achievement had slipped away.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find common ground. It didn't work.

KWAME HOLMAN: Though the immigration bill already was revived once this month, there was almost unanimous agreement that it won't be back any time soon.

Analyzing the decision

Norman Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
The strong, visceral, negative reaction to anything called amnesty...which was defined as anything that would keep the 12 million undocumented people in the country or on a path to citizenship, really killed this bill.

JIM LEHRER: And now, for the autopsy, Norman Ornstein, our resident congressional scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, is here for that.

Norm, is it one word, is it amnesty? Is that what caused this thing to go down?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Far more than anything else, Jim. The strong, visceral, negative reaction to anything called amnesty -- which, in the end, after a variety of efforts to try and make it tougher by the proponents of the bill -- was defined as anything that would keep the 12 million undocumented people in the country in the country or on a path to citizenship, really killed this bill.

You know, with 53 votes against even moving forward, you've got a variety of motives, but driving this was the amnesty issue.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with what Senator Kyl said, that this was an issue that people had views on, and that it didn't matter what somebody next to them or an old colleague or anybody -- there was no way to pressure these folks or convince them to change their votes?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: In the end, it was clear they found no way to move forward. And the proponents of this bill tried everything to toughen up the provisions to create a path to legalization for the people in the country, the undocumented workers.

JIM LEHRER: To make it more difficult for them to get...

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: To make it more difficult, make it tougher, moving to actually send at least the heads of household back to their countries to wait before they could even get visas, but that wasn't enough. This was visceral. And the 14 votes short of cloture is not a real reflection of where they were; they probably could have gotten within two or three, but they weren't going to get any closer no matter what they did.

What the American people want

Norman Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
People are evenly divided in the country on whether immigration is a good thing for the country.

JIM LEHRER: Both sides, particularly those who defeated this, used the American public opinion as their tool, as their weapon, saying this is what the American people wanted. What did the polls say? Were they definite here?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The polls were not definite. The most recent poll, when people were asked if they wanted a bill that would do these kinds of things, you had 30 percent saying yes, they'd like a bill; 28 percent saying no, because it went too far; and 15 percent saying no, because it didn't go far enough to provide good things for the illegal people in the country.

When we look much further, people are evenly divided in the country on whether immigration is a good thing for the country, don't want anything that smacks of amnesty, but also, by overwhelming margins, believe that sending the people in the country who are here illegally out, deporting them or even back home before they can come back in, won't work.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, as a practical matter, Norm, first of all, do you agree with what Senator Specter said that nothing's going to happen here until 2009?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Nothing is going to happen on a comprehensive bill, but it's important to recognize that, from this moment onward, agricultural interests are going to push very hard to do something so that they can have seasonal migrant workers. The high-tech interests in the country in Silicon Valley and in other business areas and banking are going to push very hard for an expansion of the H-1B visas that allow people with substantial skills to come in. They were all a part of this bill, but they'll be pulled out of it.

And the people who oppose this bill now are going to push very hard to simply have a separate, tough measure to tighten up the borders. The one thing that is not going to come up before 2009 is anything, as Senator Specter said, that will deal with the 12 million who are here illegally.

JIM LEHRER: Now, to go back to -- everybody has said a million times now, or more, this was President Bush's top priority, top domestic priority. His political fortunes, what the polls were saying about him, how did that affect this outcome?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There's no question the president tried to go to the well with this and pulled out his wallet to use his political capital and found that there wasn't anything much there. The Republicans last year, for a bill that wasn't as tough as this one on undocumented workers and wasn't as tough on border security, got twice as many Republican votes in the end as this one did.

It wasn't just the president. It's Republicans moving to minority status in the Senate, not having the same sense of a need to be responsible for governing, and it was a presidential contest starting up, where on the Republican side it pushed everything -- maybe it pulled them with an electoral magnet away from an immigration bill.

What the decision means for McCain

Norman Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
This one is not going to be forgotten for a long time. It did get personal, and a lot of people put themselves on the line for this. There is going to be some resentment in both parties, but, particularly, I think, within Republican ranks.

JIM LEHRER: Much has been said also -- suggested, at least -- that Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, a candidate for president, also is a big loser in this. Does that make sense to you?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: John McCain was the only presidential candidate who spoke in favor of this bill or any comprehensive...

JIM LEHRER: Republican candidate.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: ... Republican candidate, or any comprehensive immigration bill. Took a pounding on the campaign trail, and it hasn't been a good week for Senator McCain, with this vote and the Supreme Court decision on campaign finance reform, of which he has been the major champion.

There were other losers, as well. Senator McCain's Arizona colleague, Jon Kyl, one of the strongest conservatives and most respected members of the Senate, went out on a long limb to try and pull people together and has really taken a beating from his own base, the conservative base.

JIM LEHRER: You've watched these kinds of things for years, Norm. Was this a debate among senators that got personal and mean, or was it one that was always, "Oh, well, this is all in a day's work here, trying to make or kill laws"?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: This one is not going to be forgotten for a long time. It did get personal, and a lot of people put themselves on the line for this. There is going to be some resentment in both parties, but, particularly, I think, within Republican ranks, because this was the president's bill, and a lot of people who normally were with him weren't. A lot of resentment about the process that was used, the feelings are going to be raw here, I think, for some time.

Interestingly, in the end, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, who joined with Trent Lott, the Republican whip, to try and help the president get a bill, but Senator McConnell absented himself pretty much from the floor over the last day and then voted against moving forward with this bill, I think in an attempt to appease some of his colleagues he had rankled, but also to try and pull his troops back together.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Norm, thank you very much.