Congress at Impasse over Immigration Bill

Lawmakers leave for a two-week break without delivering an immigration bill. Legislative momentum on the issue was offset by a variety of political obstacles, including President Bush's flagging poll numbers.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Senate went home for a two-week break yesterday without delivering a new immigration bill. Senate leaders say they'll try again next month, but many are now skeptical as to whether Congress will act at all on the issue this year. President Bush was also pushing for the bill, but this week the White House also had to deal with revelations about its own role in leaking classified intelligence about the war in Iraq.

Joining us now to mull over the fate of all of this policy is NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING reporting:

Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: President Bush had made dealing with immigration a major priority for this year. How could it be, given the emphasis that he put on it, given the accord that at one point he seemed to have from Senate leaders, that the wheels just came off?

ELVING: Well, a lot of ruts in this road. Conflicts between the parties, conflicts within the parties, conflicts between the House and Senate. But mostly the clash of two big, conflicting ideas about this country's national identity.

You have people talking about quote "broken borders and the rule of law" unquote. And at the same time you have appeals to economic realism and you have people talking about the concept of America as a nation of immigrants.

SIMON: What exactly happened in the Senate as you can piece it together?

ELVING: They had a compromise put together by Thursday, but it was too fragile to do it against the deadline. In the Senate, even a single senator really can bring things to a crawl. And in this case, you have probably a couple dozen people who are adamantly opposed to any kind of a bill that makes it easy for people who have been in this country without documents to move towards legal status and citizenship.

SIMON: Is it going to be possible ultimately to reconcile anything that the Senate might come up with, with the House version, where attitudes are different even still?

ELVING: It may not be possible. The House has already passed a bill with a lot of tough sanctions on employers who hire people without documents. They have felony counts for people who are caught in this country without documents. They have criminalization of people who help such people, and they have a wall that goes from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

SIMON: I'm interested in the role that the president played in these events. Is this one of those occasions when the totality of the president's political problems, that I think we can fairly say might be reflected in the public approval rate, work against him on a whole range of issues that might have, in fact, little to do with that approval rating?

ELVING: Indeed. The president's numbers are in the mid-30s, a brand new poll out with the Associated Press, IPSO's polling organization having him at the lowest level they've ever had him and also having 70 percent of the people in the country saying this country's on the wrong track.

And an addition to that this week, the president's obviously been distracted over this business where Scooter Libby's filings in a court case have been released, made public. And in his defense of himself, he has said that he was dealing with reporters and giving them previously classified information from our intelligence services because the vice president had told him the president had authorized that release of that information.

Well, given the president's position on leaking back over many years, suddenly to see him authorizing selective leaks to reporters to make a case for our invasion of Iraq in this particular instance, that makes him look pretty hypocritical.

SIMON: So the president's able to win re-election, but for two years running he's been unable, at least so far, to get his principal domestic policy idea through the Congress.

ELVING: Last year, he wanted Social Security more than anything else; this year immigration more than anything else. And maybe it means the system isn't working, maybe it means the system isn't working for George Bush.

On the other hand, sometimes the system works by rejecting what's proposed. That can be an expression of the will of the people too. If there's no consensus in Congress for a wall across the border, maybe the country doesn't really want one. And if there's no workable plan for moving 11 or 12 million people towards legal status, well, maybe the country's ready to stay with what it has for a while longer.

SIMON: NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving. Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

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