Future of CIR Uncertain as GOP Reformers Leave Senate08 Sep 2010
Perhaps it will turn out to have been the high-water mark of bipartisanship in the comprehensive immigration reform debate, that brief shining moment back in 2006 when Democratic and Republican Senators came together to pass the bipartisan McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill, by a vote of 62 to 36. (See Immigration: The Shrinking GOP Reform Caucus, by Tom Curry, MSNBC.com, 27.Aug.2010.) Such was the optimism back then that many staunch supporters of CIR viewed its ultimate defeat as a mere temporary setback, and hoped the next go-around would produce a bill even more favorable to immigration moderates.
The gridlock and acrimony of the years intervening leave it open to question whether a moderate bipartisan approach to immigration even remains possible. As Tom Curry pointed out on MSNBC.com, twenty-three GOP senators supported the McCain-Kennedy bill, but only seven of those – at most – will be around when the new Senate is sworn in next January, many of them victims of the increasingly partisan tone among the party faithful, who now brook no namby-pamby bipartisanship, apparently preferring a combat of sound bites in the service of ideological purity, particularly on hot-button issues such as immigration.
It is an open question whether these erstwhile GOP reformers will find much company on their own side of the aisle, if they decide to support some version of CIR again, but it seems unlikely at this writing. Of the six, perhaps seven, remaining, Senator McCain appears to have changed into an immigration hardliner, in keeping with the prevailing sentiment in Arizona right now. Senator Graham’s participation also seems doubtful, having run for his political life from the bipartisan CIR negotiations he had been carrying on with Senator Schumer. That leaves Senator Mitch McConnell, who has shown himself disinclined to cooperate with his Democratic colleagues during the current Congress, and Senators Richard Lugar, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, all of whom are smart people with strong backbones, but may find themselves overmatched by circumstances and party discipline. (The last of the seven is Senator Lisa Murkowski, currently fighting for her political life in the wake of the hotly-contested Alaska primary.)
Democrats are likely to be hard-pressed to move a CIR bill in the coming Congress, faced with continued economic uncertainty, a rising tide of populist anti-immigrant sentiment, and the loss of Senator Ted Kennedy – a legislative dealmaker par excellence. At some point, though, there is bound to be a convergence of interests, when both sides recognize that the status quo is no longer tenable – that we need to fix the broken immigration system because our economy demands it, our jobs depend on it, and our social security system and aging population makes it imperative.