Thursday, January 25, 2007

It’s Time for Bush, Democrats to Do Immigration

By Stuart Rothenberg

House Democrats got off to a good start this month when they immediately addressed ethics, the minimum wage, the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and the cost of prescription drugs.

Those are legislative items with considerable national appeal, and while the House bills could bog down in the Senate, which moves at a glacial pace on most things, Democrats can rightfully claim that they moved legislation and tackled problems just days after they were sworn in.

But in reality, the increase in the minimum wage will have minimal effect except in a handful of industries and for relatively few people, and ethics reform, while an important, symbolic step, ultimately isn’t going to affect the daily lives of most Americans (at least those who aren’t lobbyists themselves).

Congressional hearings on Iraq will give Democrats an opportunity to embarrass the White House and to satisfy the party’s base, which still has plenty of vitriol bottled up after years of an Iraq policy that appears to be nothing short of a disaster. But again, we are largely talking symbolism, and politics, here. As long as the president is commander in chief, Congress’ role is limited in Iraq.

We all understand that Congressional Democrats preferred to do the easy stuff (or the red-meat issues, such as stem-cell research) first, while leaving some of the truly important issues for later. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the House Democratic leadership wanted quick victories to convey to the American public a sense of action and accomplishment, as well as to draw a sharp distinction with Congressional Republicans, who acted over the previous two years as if they had two speeds: slow and slower.

It’s also true that the controversial stuff is harder to accomplish, which means it takes more time and skill to put together. (Again, stem-cell research is a different matter. Democrats are merely trying to make a point, since there is no reason to believe that they can override a veto.)

If the powers that be, including President Bush and Capitol Hill Democrats, really want to do something important, they ought to tackle immigration reform immediately. And that means now, not a month or two from now. The longer they wait to forge a bipartisan consensus on immigration, the harder it will be to get a package that can pass both chambers of Congress.

Within a few months, growing Republican bitterness over Democratic Congressional hearings could poison the environment on Capitol Hill, making it harder for the president and Democrats to find common ground on an issue that looks like a natural for bipartisanship.

Democrats lambasted Congressional Republicans for months for being unable to produce a comprehensive bill that would deal with border control, security issues and a guest-worker program that allows for immigrants to work in the country and, possibly, acquire citizenship after meeting a number of prerequisites.

Since Congressional Democrats and Bush are a lot closer to each other than Bush is to House Republicans, it should be easy for the White House and Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to get immigration reform moving.

I’m not suggesting that there won’t be differences of opinion over details of any immigration plan, such as employer penalties, how to physically secure the border or how those here illegally may be able to get in line for permanent resident status. But an agreement on immigration between the president and Congressional Democrats would not only deal with one of the most important issues of the day, it also would establish a precedent that bipartisan progress is possible on an issue that last year proved intractable.

Obviously, there is a political side to the equation, and tackling the issue is not without risk for Democrats.

A balanced, comprehensive plan would not involve throwing every illegal immigrant out of the country overnight, and that would upset a good number of Americans who think that a guest-worker program is synonymous with “amnesty,” and that anyone who favors “amnesty” is out to destroy this country. That’s why a compromise bill would provoke such outspoken opposition.

Of course, legislation to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants in the country would give anti-immigration activists a weapon to use in 2008. But support from the president and a fair number of Republicans in the Senate would limit the damage that Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and his allies could do on the ground.

They say that timing is everything in politics. We all know that the later in the year a controversial issue is raised, the harder it is to get a bill passed. That’s particularly true in a presidential election cycle, and it’s certainly true with immigration reform.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 22, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.