Immigration Marches Fail to Sway Congress

Host Renee Montagne talks to News Analyst Cokie Roberts about the immigration issue. Massive demonstrations across the country don't seem to be moving Congress.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining me now for some analysis of the demonstrations is NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, these massive demonstrations against crackdowns on immigration don't seem to be moving Congress very much. Why is that?

ROBERTS: Well, among some members, their positions are already on the side of the demonstrators, and I think that the combination of these demonstrations and pressure from the White House did move the Senate toward a compromise on immigration last week, but it fell apart as one of its chief sponsors, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said, because senators put politics over policy.

Now that was true on both sides. There were Republicans who wanted to offer amendments that would do in the guest worker program that was part of the compromise; and there were Democrats who didn't want the Republicans to have any legislative success, particularly on this issue, because the Democrats are aware that the Republicans are making some significant inroads on wooing Hispanic voters and they didn't want them to have a clean immigration bill that they could brag about.

So, now the question is, do they come back and do something, or not? And we'll see what happens when they get back. House leaders, of course, the House has passed a bill that Democrats are able to point to and say it's oppressive towards immigrants, and it's exactly the bill that these demonstrators are out in the streets protesting. But House leaders are not eager to talk about compromise until they see whether the Senate actually gets a bill, because they want to see what the reality of the situation is. And even those who don't like the House bill think that it could help get out the Republican base in what could be a tough election year.

Polls are showing that immigration has moved up as an issue that people care deeply about, although that could just be a result of the fact that it's gotten so much coverage in the last few weeks.

MONTAGNE: And, tomorrow here in California, there is a special election for Congress. And it's interesting, Cokie, because it could tell us something about the immigration debate, right?

ROBERTS: It could tell us a lot about several debates this year, Renee. It is in San Diego. It's an election to replace Randy Duke Cunningham who, of course, has been convicted of bribery. And so the Democrats are using it to try to talk about corruption in Washington, and it's obviously ground zero for that, and to talk about immigration to some degree and most especially to see where people are on President Bush ‘cause these off-year elections tend to be referenda on the president sitting in the White House.

The Democratic candidate Francine Busby, a school board member, seems to be running ahead in a very large field at the moment, and it's a free-for-all election--everybody runs against everybody and then the top two run off. She has been for a guest worker program on immigration, but she's also hammered home the corruption issue. The Republican can--she hasn't mentioned that she's a Democrat and the Republican candidates don't say very much about George Bush.

I must say she's likely to get into the run-off. If she should win the special election in that very Republican seat, then you would see a real running for the doors on the Republican part in Congress.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, you've mentioned some candidates separating themselves from President Bush, if Republican candidates are running from him, what about his agenda?

Ms. ROBERTS: It's very tough to get anything done. Immigration's a good example of that. Also, last week the House failed to pass a budget or tax cut extension. They've got problems of their own there, but the President just can't be heard, Renee.

You're got Tom DeLay's departure, the Katrina report, Dick Cheney shooting someone, the Dubai Ports deal, the leak and most lately, a discussion of invasion of Iran. That will be all the talk in Washington this week, nothing about the president's agenda.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. That's NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts.

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