WASHINGTON – Top congressional Republicans and Democrats on Friday blamed each other for the failure to pass immigration reform laws, continuing a flurry of partisan jabs after a Senate compromise crumbled one week ago.
The first shots Friday were fired by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who called a Republican-supported House bill on immigration "mean-spirited." Those high-ranking Democrats also accused the GOP of favoring jail terms for "an entire population of immigrants" under the bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
"We must work together for real, bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that protects our borders, honors our values, and that we can all be proud of. The Sensenbrenner bill fails miserably and is antithetical to our basic values as a country. We will continue to vigorously oppose it," the leaders' statement said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist responded with his own scathing words, calling Reid weak on border security.
"Senator Reid's politics of delay and distraction are the the reason we can't move forward on immigration reform. His refusal to even allow debate on amendments hurts our ability to stop illegal immigration before it starts and underscores his commitment to playing politics with a security, economic and humanitarian issue that affects all Americans," the Tennessee Republican said.
Frist said two of his own amendments — one that would help direct economic aid to Mexico to help stem the flow of immigrants, and one that would speed the path to citizenship for legal residents serving in the armed services — were blocked by Reid.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, called the action to kill the so-called unlawful presence amendment in Sensenbrenner's bill a Democratic "poison pill."
"The Democratic leadership tried to prevent our efforts towards securing America's borders by voting to keeping the Pelosi poison pill of felony status," Bonjean said. "Our leaders have said we intend to remove it in conference. Now that Americans understand the truth, the Democrats are playing political word games to cover their lack of compassion or desire for strong border security."
The partisan jabs were the latest in a week that has seen President Bush and his chief spokesman casting aspersions on Reid, Reid pointing fingers back at the president and Frist, and Frist blaming Reid and House Democrats for their "lack of compassion" over immigration reform.
Bush has called for comprehensive immigration reform, including a so-called guest-worker program that allow some of the 12 million estimated illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Despite his critics — which include many Republicans on this issue — the president says he does not want a program that amounts to amnesty, or giving illegal immigrants an unfair advantage over those who have entered the country or are attempting to enter legally.
While the House passed an immigration bill in December, a highly touted but tenuous Senate compromise fell apart amid partisan bickering last week. The House bill didn't include a guest worker program, but stiffened border security measures and penalties for illegal immigrants and those who assist them. Bill defenders have said the bill would not target social service groups and other organizations as criminals.
The Senate was considering a bill that would have included a guest worker program as well as border security measures and others, but put off consideration of the bill until after the two-week Easter recess.
The heightened rhetoric represents some election-year jitters in both parties, but might backfire on Republicans if it hasn’t already, said political analyst Patrick Besham, director of the Washington-based Democracy Institute.
Republicans thought "immigration in 2006 would be this election's gay marriage issue — that it would really energize the base and maybe be a wedge to get, particularly, blue-collar Democrats, Reagan Democrats, to go Republican or stay home" come election time, Besham said.
But with hundreds of thousands of people turning out for protests against the House reform bill, Besham said their get-tough stance might have alienated a group they're trying to woo in November — Hispanics. Another unknown factor, however, is how many of those protestors will turn out at the polls.
Besham said if Republicans want to salvage the immigration issue as a political playing chip for November, they need to get away from the tit-for-tat game they are playing with Democrats.
Democrats, on the other hand, have been playing the immigration issue better than they have others, and are giving a unified message, according to observers.
"They appear to have taken a side," Besham said.
Jane Hall, a communications professor at American University and regular guest on "FOX News Watch," said she thinks the rallies over recent weeks prove the strength of the immigrant voice here and probably surprised both Republicans and Democrats.
"I think this is something that's going to come up in the mid-term elections" in November, Hall said.
The issue, however, is a complicated one and subject to political tilt and what she called "demagoguery" — making something look worse than it really is — and both parties are guilty of it. Some Republicans have decried all guest worker programs as amnesty; Some Democrats have said the felony provision would make good Samaritans criminals.
Hall said she thinks Republicans have more to lose than Democrats on the issue because Bush has made the issue one to fight over.
"Now it's almost come back to bite him," Hall said.
Frist and Hastert released a statement Tuesday saying they would pursue an immigration bill that would not make so-called unlawful presence a felony.
The term "unlawful presence" refers to a section of H.R. 4437 — the House's immigration bill that passed in December. The bill would make unlawful presence illegal and subject to criminal penalties.
Benjamin Johnson, director of the American Immigration Law Foundation's Immigration Policy Center, said the "unlawful presence" clause would broaden the law to possibly include legal immigrant residents who accidentally let their paperwork lapse. as well as those who illegally cross the border.
Republicans charge that Democrats killed a Sensenbrenner amendment that would have relaxed the penalties on unlawful presence from the felony status to a misdemeanor status. The amendment died with 191 Democrats and 65 Republicans voting against it; a majority of Republicans favored the amendment.
Democrats, however, argue that the House bill was a Republican bill to begin with, and Republicans were the ones who originally inserted the felony language.
Reid and Pelosi's statement Friday said many Democrats opposed Sensenbrenner's amendment because, "if adopted, would have still criminalized an entire population for the first time in our history."
Public opinion on the whether illegal immigration should be a crime is mixed. A Washington Post-ABC news poll this week found that only 20 percent were in favor of making illegal immigration a felony and barring illegal immigrants from working.
But a Gallup-USA Today poll released this week found that 61 percent of those polled say illegal immigration should be a crime, and 52 percent thought it should be a crime for U.S. citizens to provide assistance knowingly to illegal immigrants.