Week in Politics: Immigration Bill Down, But Is It Out?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Immigration reform legislation is down, but it's not out. The bipartisan compromise unraveled in the Senate Thursday night, but supporters of the legislation hope the bill will come back to life in a few weeks when they say senators of both parties will come to their senses.
President Bush hasn't given up. He's promising to try to revive the bill. The president is scheduled to have lunch with GOP senators this Tuesday. And you can be sure that immigration reform will be on the menu.
NPR's senior political editor Ron Elving joins us. Good morning, Ron.
RON ELVING: Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: Ron, as you know there's widespread consensus that something has to be done about this problem of illegal immigration. We might - what happened to sink this bill?
ELVING: Liane, this bill stilled because the senators who wanted it didn't want it badly enough relative to the intensity of the opponents. And, you know, there were opponents who were well organized, they're highly vocal and empowered by the new media powers of the Internet and Talk Radio especially the Talk Radio, which has been around for about 10 years or so. You have to wonder whether a lot of the landmark bills of the past like the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 could have been enacted in the face of this kind of resistance.
Anyway, in this case, in the face of this kind of resistance, the supporters seemed comparatively disorganized and the big symbol of the bill in the senate became Teddy Kennedy, who's clearly a flash point for all conservatives, and John McCain, who was supposed to be the Republican face of the bill, was distracted by his presidential campaign and the president was distracted by a Summit in Europe.
And finally, the key figure who has to get this done in the Senate is the majority leader, who needs a big assist from the minority leader. And in this case neither Harry Reid nor Mitch McConnell seemed really committed to getting this bill done or giving it the time or the top priority it would take.
HANSEN: So what do the events of this past week then say about the government's ability to address a major problem and arrive at a plan of action to resolve it?
ELVING: Well, nothing terribly encouraging. Even if you hate this particular immigration bill - and obviously many people do - you have to wonder about this model for governance. I mean, was this the Senate listening to the true voice of the people or was it just the system being dysfunctional again? You look back across the last five years in Congress and in Washington, generally. And whether you're talking about the Social Security and Medicare issues or the tax code or big social problems such as immigration, we see a congress and a federal government that does not work well, especially across party lines or between, say the White House and the executive branch and the legislative branch, and it does not work generally well with the states - so Hurricane Katrina comes to mind.
So, to some degree, it's this lack of coordination among elected officials that then leaves them vulnerable to well-organized pressure groups or interest groups that were well financed and this grass roots activism that may or may not reflect the actual sentiments of most Americans.
HANSEN: So briefly are there strategies that have proved defective in the past to get these legislations through Congress?
ELVING: You know, occasionally, one party has enough seats or a popular enough issues or just a big enough head of steam that they can just roll ride over the other guys. But more typically, you have to compromise. You have to make a deal with the other guys. And you come up with something no one really loves but most people can live with and then you try to make it work. That's what you do when you can't simply prevail.
HANSEN: Now, as we mentioned, President Bush wants Congress to revisit the immigration bill. In yesterday's radio address, he appealed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to take the initiative. This is what he said.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I wish Senator Reid to act quickly to bring this bill back to the center floor for a vote. And I wish senators from both parties to support it.
HANSEN: President Bush during this radio address yesterday. Ron, what has to happen for the president to get this package through Congress?
ELVING: He's got to really get his back into this bill. On the Hill, he's got a price on resistance to it especially in his own party. He has to go on national television and take on the amnesty issue. If it's not amnesty, Mr. President, tell us why it's not amnesty because that one word, Liane, been a killer out in the country.
HANSEN: Congress has to think of some other significant issues: energy policy, healthcare, the environment. How do you think the Congress you've been describing is going to be able to deal with those?
ELVING: It's going to be a challenge. But the election, it's coming next year and that keeps politics front and center. Sometimes that can be a huge inhibitor but it can also be an accelerator when people think getting something done will help them politically. So on the hopeful side, some of these issues are conceivably a little less thorny than illegal immigration. They're not cost-free of course, but they're less of a ticket and more easily balanced. And there's building support, I think, in the country for action, on energy alternatives to oil and coal. And there are models for revising the health care system that people can look at. So Congress and the administration should take some lessons from the immigration failure and work harder at working together.
HANSEN: Ron, we have to spend the last minute we have on the big issue at the top of the agenda for sometime to come: Iraq. How do you see the Congress working with the president on Iraq?
ELVING: They haven't up-to-date of course. The president has insisted that when it comes to national security, the president makes the policy. He is the decider. He is the commander in chief and he has interpreted that not only as being commander in chief for the military, but commander in chief for the entire federal government - the entire structure in a sense for the country as a whole.
That's not going to work with this Congress because this is a democratic-led Congress. And, of course, what you brought up here is the toughest problem, of course, of all. There needs to be some kind of a bargain. It may not be grand, but there needs to be some kind of a bargain. And my guess is that the White House in Congress will bringing most of the U.S. homes - most of the U.S. troops home starting this fall and leaving a smaller security force in Iraq or in the region indefinitely thereafter.
HANSEN: NPR's senior political editor Ron Elving. Ron, thanks a lot.
ELVING: Thank you, Liane.
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