Immigration Debate Reveals GOP Divide Despite high hopes of fixing a broken immigration system, the Senate's bipartisan bill faltered, and it might not come back. The debate exposed a divide among Republicans between the business community and social conservatives.
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Immigration Debate Reveals GOP Divide

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Immigration Debate Reveals GOP Divide

Immigration Debate Reveals GOP Divide

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A White House-backed bipartisan push in the Senate to pass a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws came to a skidding halt on Thursday evening. Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the bill after most Republicans and some Democrats joined the filibuster blocking a final vote. In the end, what might have been a big domestic accomplishment for a lame duck president instead went off the rails.

NPR's David Welna reviews was happened.

DAVID WELNA: This massive immigration bill was no ordinary piece of legislation, and it did not go through a Democratic-controlled committee where it might have been revised in public. Instead, this was a deal secretly worked out by a group, ranging from liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy to White House cabinet officials to conservative Republican Jon Kyl.

The elaborate compromise they struck was dubbed, the grand bargain. Early this week on the Senate floor, Kyl warned colleagues not to mess that bargain up with amendments.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): There are some things, which go right to the heart of this bargain. And many of the people who will support those amendments know that. And I'm sad to say that one of the reasons that they will be supported by some members is precisely to kill the bill.

WELNA: Kyl's do-not-touch warning went over like a lead balloon with some of his fellow conservatives. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions said he'd normally be, as he put it, one of Kyl's right-hand guys.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Well, in this deal, I can't be with him. I don't agree that a small group of senators can meet and close the meetings and reach a compromise that nobody can amend.

WELNA: In the end, Kyl backed down. He even joined Sessions in blocking a final vote on the bill, a vote that many senators who worried about a constituent backlash were none too eager to cast. Tanya Clay House of People for the American Way is one of many pro-immigration lobbyists who pushed Democratic leaders to try to force that final vote on the bill.

Ms. TANYA CLAY HOUSE (Director, Public Policy, People for the American Way): There was bad intent by many of the Republicans to continually stall the bill and never have any resolution whatsoever.

WELNA: But there were also Republicans like Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter who voted with Democrats to wrap up the bill.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Some of our Republican colleagues are going to have to realize that the caucus will not stay with them on opposing cloture that is opposed in cutting off debate to allow them unlimited time under unlimited circumstances to be dilatory.

WELNA: Rutgers University congressional expert Ross Baker says a growing divide in the Republican Party clearly got exposed this week.

Mr. ROSS BAKER (Congressional Expert, Rutgers University): Because what you saw in the choosing up of sides on the comprehensive immigration reform bill was a total collapse of the Ronald Reagan coalition, which in 1980 brought together social conservatives, who in this case, tends to be most vociferous opponents of the bill with a few exceptions. And the business community - the economic conservatives and the social conservatives - and they were divided pretty much right down the middle.

WELNA: President Bush only deepened that divide last week in Georgia by going after conservative critics of the immigration bill.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it. You can use it to frighten people, or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all.

WELNA: The phrase, if you don't do what's right for America, infuriated many Republicans. Baker doubts they'll help resurrect the immigration bill as the president is now urging Congress to do.

Mr. BAKER: He had put a great deal of his prestige on the line to try to get this passed. And I think it certainly will reflect on his legacy.

WELNA: A legacy looking unlikely to include a sweeping immigration overhaul.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

YDSTIE: And you can test your knowledge of immigration myths and misunderstandings and track global hotspots for immigrants at our Web site

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