Capitol Hill press conferences normally radiate the sincerity of an airline crew on a late-arriving regional jet robotically thanking each passenger at the exit door for enduring flying with them.
But there was a faint whiff of the genuine article early Thursday evening when beleaguered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and four senior Democrats unveiled their framework for an immigration reform bill. The message from each of the Democrats can be summarized in words often uttered by lonely children on sunny Saturday afternoons: "Will the Republicans come out and play, please?"
After going it alone on health care and for the moment with the current attempt to re-regulate Wall Street, the Democrats know that immigration is too radioactive an issue to pass Congress on a near party line vote. As New York's Chuck Schumer, who has taken the lead in crafting the legislation, put it, "Immigration reform is a morally complex and politically explosive challenge ... We are asking our Republican colleagues to come join us in this difficult work."
Few surprises were embedded in the 26-page document
released by the Democrats, since it follows the rough contours of the 2005 grand bargain coupling tougher border enforcement with an eventual path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants. But the two legendary figures who negotiated that bipartisan agreement, which never passed the Senate, are no longer in Congress. Ted Kennedy died last year and John McCain, the maverick willing to cut a deal with Democrats, has been MIA since the 2008 campaign.
South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who until recently had been negotiating with Schumer in McCain's stead, is now in full sulk over Reid's abortive efforts to leapfrog immigration ahead of climate change legislation on the Senate calendar. As Graham told The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, "Some supporters of immigration reform think I've abandoned them. But they're not listening. This is just too far for me and for the issue this year." Against this backdrop, it was intriguing that Schumer mentioned at the press conference that he had been talking with retiring New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, who last year briefly agreed to be Commerce secretary before belatedly realizing that Barack Obama was a Democrat.
Few Democrats actually believe that there are enough months and moxie to pass immigration reform this year with the November elections looming. As Obama himself told reporters on Air Force One Wednesday night (and the White House spent Thursday stressing that the president's words did not signal a policy change on immigration), "It's a matter of political will ... I've been working Congress pretty hard. So I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue."
A more realistic timetable for a serious immigration debate may be the spring of 2011 in that brief interlude between the congressional elections and the run-up to the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Democrats will then presumably have leaner congressional majorities (and may lose control of the House entirely), but Republican incumbents will probably be under less pressure from the Tea Party movement to shun all compromise. Simon Rosenberg, the president of NDN, a center-left Democratic think tank, predicts, "We've entered the end game on immigration reform. We will have a spirited effort to pass it this year -- and that will probably fail. But the president will bring it back next spring."
In Congress, there is always a choice between posturing and passage, between scoring political points and securing a legislative majority. With Latinos the fast-growing voting bloc in America, it is easy to assume that the Democrats intend to flog GOP resistance on immigration reform as a tactic to boost Hispanic turnout. (In 2008, Obama captured 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to national exit polls). "With financial regulatory reform, the Democrats want both an issue and a bill that passes Congress," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and an expert on Capitol Hill. "On immigration, all they want is an issue."
But the legislative dance on immigration reform is now totally entangled with Arizona's draconian new law
that gives state and local police the right to challenge anyone who is reasonably suspected of being in the country illegally. Not only has the Republican-sponsored Arizona legislation, signed into law by GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, vaulted immigration into the headlines, but it has also aroused Hispanic voters. As Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a leading spokesman on Latino issues, said to me in an interview, "Arizona has obviously galvanized and united and given us new spirit. When people get tired and frustrated and feel disillusioned, Arizona is the antidote. It's the reason why you can't rest."
Just a month ago, Stanford University political scientist Gary Segura, who also is co-director of Latino Voices, a political consulting firm, headlined a blog post
, "Latino enthusiasm for midterm election at an all time low." A March poll by Latino Voices found that only 49 percent of registered Hispanic voters said they were very enthusiastic about the upcoming congressional elections. In contrast, a poll of Hispanic voters at a similar point in 2006 (the year that the Democrats won control of Congress) found that 77 percent were enthusiastic about going to the polls in November.
But that was before Arizona became the epicenter for the anti-immigrant white backlash. Segura told me in an interview this week, "I would have said in March that the Democrats had to move on immigration because there was such Latino discouragement. But that was before Arizona." Although Segura stresses that he does not yet have polling data to back up his intuition, he theorizes, "Now all the Democrats have to do is get an immigration bill to the floor of the Senate and have a cloture vote with the Republicans angrily objecting."
A wild card in all of this is whether non-Hispanic moderate swing voters will decide that the stop-and-demand-papers Arizona law violates basic standards of fair play. If the Arizona story reaches that level of national notoriety (and it may never get there) then the political calculus for Republicans may change. Tamar Jacoby, who heads a pro-immigration-reform business lobby, ImmigrationWorks USA, said, "Somehow the Republican calculus has to shift from 'We're in trouble if we do the immigration bill' to 'We're in trouble if we don't.' And this won't because of Latinos but soccer moms. And the question is whether Arizona becomes the immigration movement's Birmingham."
As counterintuitive as it seems, Arizona may quickly fade as a hot-button topic if the federal courts rule that the state legislation is unconstitutional before it takes effect mid-summer. "A legal victory would be wonderful for the population served," said Luis Fraga, a political scientist at the University of Washington. "But it also blunts the political impact."
But for the moment, the Democrats appear to be playing an inside-the-Senate legislative game on immigration reform. Reid implied at the press conference that he would only bring a bill to the Senate floor this year if it had some token Republican support and a chance of surviving of a GOP filibuster.
Of course, the Senate majority leader is also facing a difficult re-election campaign in Nevada, a state with a large Latino vote. So only the terminally naïve should rule out the possibility of Democratic political gamesmanship on immigration if Senate Republicans stubbornly refuse to come out and play.