Story 10 Brothers and Rivals
Fall, 2004 - Spring, 2005: Congressmen Kolbe and Flake's reward for their innovative 2003 guestworker bill: tough primary challenges in 2004, facing determined opponents who capitalize on Arizona anger over 'amnesty for illegals.' The very different campaigns, both hot and colorful, leave the winners vowing to do something about immigration. By winter, staffers for Kennedy, McCain, Kolbe, Flake, and Democrat Luis Gutierrez all sit down in the same room. Can they join forces to combine the best of earlier, competing bills into the first bipartisan, bicameral Comprehensive Immigration Reform ever introduced in the U.S. Congress?
People who know the ways of Capitol Hill say a really big bill can take 6, 8, 9 years or more to pass into law. Before 9/11, it looked as though a comprehensive immigration reform bill would beat the odds and sail through before the end of 2001. Then it was clear that wasn't going to happen. But in 2005, only four years after the idea began to take shape, something big does move.
It all starts in the summer of 2003, when Arizona Congressmen Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe introduce their innovative guest worker bill and John McCain, tired of waiting for Kennedy's office to work out all the details of a comprehensive bill that the advocate community, the business community and the labor unions would support, signs on just before introduction.
"Kolbe-Flake-McCain" never moves beyond introduction, but it has real impact across the country for those working for and against immigration reform, both in the Republican administration, and most evidently, at home in Arizona.
Before the holidays, as the White House is mulling the immigration issue and the upcoming election, politicians in Arizona are weighing the costs Kolbe and Flake might have to pay for their bill in re-election campaigns in 2004. After the President's speech on January 7th, the backlash from a Republican base furious about anything that smacks of "amnesty" leaves Kolbe and Flake vulnerable. Whacking a couple of Congressmen would be a great way to send a message to Washington.
In short order, both incumbents acquire primary challengers. Flake's opponent is a popular local lobbyist and neighbor, Stan Barnes, who readily admits, "A ham sandwich could get 40% of the vote against Flake on the basis of his amnesty bill alone." Kolbe's challenger turns out to be State Representative Randy Graff, another popular local politician who has solid bona fides as an opponent of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The two campaigns are very different. In Mesa, Flake's high-population district in greater Phoenix, the immigration issue is big but hardly the only one. For Kolbe, whose much larger district includes part of Tucson plus a large territory south to Mexico and the flash point border town of Sierra Vista, it seems that immigration may be the only issue that counts.
Kolbe's district is fed up with the real problems associated with "illegals" and furious about Bush's speech. Quite a few voters believe the "President's guestworker plan" has already been passed into law. Graff is a serious contender and the hard-fought contest proves to be a real window into the divide over immigration within the Republican party.
After a long election night, both Kolbe and Flake return to Washington for another two years in Congress, and a new opportunity. Earlier that summer, rumors in Arizona were that before the 2004 elections John McCain had told Ted Kennedy, "Whoever wins this thing, let's get together afterward and get immigration done." Maybe he had, because in early 2005, to the amazement of many who working on the issue from one side or another for years, that's what starts to happen.
Staffers for Kennedy and McCain, as well as staff from Flake, Kolbe and firebrand Democrat Luis Guttierez' offices in the House begin to meet, talk and pretty quickly work together to write a new bill. With the best parts of their earlier competing bills, the new "sorority" constructs a comprehensive reform bill guaranteed to have bi-partisan support from the beginning.
The Republican offices biggest problems come from political opponents of the idea, including a skeptical faction of advisors at the White House. The Democrats' face, as before, much more trouble from the interested parties actually sitting at the negotiating table. They still have to scramble for solutions organized labor won't thwart. But all their bosses are determined to go forward and the bargaining is different this time.
Not that the AFL gives up -- right up to the last day, there's a chance labor's opposition might once again tip the process into delay. But on May 12th, all five staffers and their bosses meet in Senator Kennedy's hideaway in the Capitol, just steps away from the Senate Radio/TV Gallery, to prep for the press conference about to happen. They will announce the first bi-partisan, bi-cameral comprehensive immigration reform bill ever introduced in the US Congress. The Grand Bargain now exists as a bill.