Congress Stuck in Immigration Stalemate

It’s time to forget most of what you learned in school about “how a bill becomes a law.”

The Congressional showdown over immigration reform is being played out in a different league with different rules.

There really are only three basic issues to be resolved at this point, and they all turn on pure politics, not on substance.

The first question that must be addressed is as follows: Can President Bush convince House Republicans to support legislation which includes legalization (amnesty in the eyes of many House Republicans) for a significant number of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in our country?

The bill passed by the Senate includes a clear path to legalization for the millions of illegal immigrants who have been in the country for at least five years and possible legalization for those who have been here at least two years. The bill passed by the House has no legalization provisions and only deals with securing our borders.

Many House Republicans, including Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, have said “no” to any form of amnesty. It is unlikely that the Senate will accept a conference committee agreement that totally slams the door on legalization for some illegal aliens. President Bush will continue to lobby House Republicans hard on this issue.

My prediction: The president will fail and a majority of House Republicans will not support any significant legalization.

That brings us to the second question: Will Speaker Dennis Hastert permit a conference committee agreement providing for a significant amount of legalization to go to the floor for a vote of the full House that is not supported by a majority of House Republicans-- even though it might be passed by a bi-partisan majority (The Senate bill did not get a majority of Republican votes but it got enough Democrats to ensure passage)?

Speaker Hastert has declared that he will not permit legislation on controversial issues like immigration to move forward if it is not supported by a majority of the majority party. If he holds to this position, Hastert will drive a stake through the heart of immigration reform in this Congress.

My prediction: Hastert will change his position under pressure from the White House and the full House will have the opportunity to vote on a conference committee agreement on immigration reform including some legalization, though there is no guarantee that the conference report will pass.

That then brings us to the ultimate political question: Will House and Senate Democrats provide the votes to pass an immigration compromise and thus hand President Bush a major victory going into the fall elections?

It is impossible to answer this question right now. There are some House Democrats who agree with House Republicans that the country should secure its borders first before it considers legalization for any of the illegal aliens currently here. These Democrats tend to come form marginal districts in the South and Midwest where anti-amnesty sentiment is running strong.

Additionally, House Democratic leaders may decide to deny Bush an immigration victory no matter what agreements could be reached in conference.

Then there is the Senate. The bill passed by the Senate was described by its proponents as being the product of a “fragile” coalition. Any significant changes in conference could result in both Democratic and Republican proponents in the Senate opposing the final product through a filibuster or on final passage.

The ultimate wildcard in this debate is the president’s “guest worker” proposal, which would permit hundreds of thousands of additional immigrants to come into the country for temporary work no mater what happens to the 11 million illegal aliens currently here. It is possible that House Republicans could bring themselves to support this proposal as long as the compromise does not include any legalization for people already here, but it is unlikely that any significant number of Democrats in either the House or Senate would support a “guest worker” program without some legalization.

The Democratic Party’s allies in organized labor are dead set against the “guest worker” program because it could depress wages for American citizens.

Immigration reform can only pass if it is the product of true bi-partisan cooperation. Bi-partisan support was key to the enactment of major civil rights legislation in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. The fact that the White House did not insist that Democrats be brought in at the beginning of the immigration process rather than at the end may well doom its chances in this Congress.

As they used to say in Brooklyn about the Dodgers: Wait until next year.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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