Story 12 The Senators' Bargain | Last Best Chance
"Last Best Chance" is the Directors' Cut of the HBO special "The Senators' Bargain"
Spring, 2007: This year, immigration advocates and grassroots expect great things. But Senator Kennedy has lost his partner McCain to presidential primaries, and the Republicans now put a very different offer on the table. Deep at the heart of this fast-moving story, we find a moral tale of modern American politics. Ted Kennedy, one of the handful of people who through his personal efforts truly changed the face of America, will be forced to decide how much does he want this deal, and what is he willing to trade for his greatest legacy?
There's a good argument that the populist movement that's now a major force in American politics cut its teeth back in 2007-- on the highly controversial immigration bill Senator Ted Kennedy brought up that spring.
Story #12 plunges directly into the backstage reality of that remarkable moment -- before the 2008 elections, before the bailouts, before Tea Partiers -- when high-stakes social policy agreements still could, occasionally, be reached.
Only a titan of the Senate could manage such a deal even then, and certainly not without cost. Just a year earlier, Kennedy and fellow Republican Senator John McCain had deftly shepherded a comprehensive immigration reform bill all the way to passage in the Senate.
Even with its many necessary compromises, their bill created a guest-worker program to give millions of undocumented workers and family members who had been waiting patiently in the backlog a path to citizenship. But the "amnesty" label stuck, and the bill died without ever going to Conference at the end of the 109th Congress.
This year, with the Democrats in control of both houses in the 110th Congress, immigration advocates and grassroots are expecting great things. Yet it's precisely the re-balance of power, along with the fact that Senator Kennedy's previous ally Senator McCain is now running for president and not about to take on the controversial bill again, that makes the going so tough in 2007.
In lieu of a strong Republican champion like McCain, the White House steps in to try to find a deal that can work. But not a single Republican senator seems ready to accept the thankless mission until finally -- and to the amazement of followers of Congressional immigration battles over the years -- one of Kennedy's staunchest former foes, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, agrees to negotiate.
In the background, the federal government is stepping up raids on factories and other employers of undocumented workers. Thousands are being arrested and deported. "It's one of the saddest times of my public life," Kennedy says of the raids. Immigration opponents too turn up the heat in the media, calling any guest-worker program "amnesty" and a get-out-of-jail-free pass.
Once again, the labels are starting to stick.
The White House is backing a new merit-system proposal that interests Senator Kyl, who sees a fit with his goal to re-invent the system to give the country an economic edge going forward. Advocates in the pro-immigration reform movement are appalled by it, and furious with Kennedy for even negotiating with such an idea on the table. The "point system" heavily favors educated English-speakers without regard to family connections or ties to the U.S., and seems to advocates like a throwback to the immigration quotas of the early 20th century.
The story lies in the anatomy of the fight over the bill, as legislators and their allies wield procedural gambits and personal politics to defend both sides. What's at stake in this complicated fight? On the table, there's the possibility to reform America's immigration system and legalize some 20 million people living in the shadows.
The trade-off is a drasticl reduction in family-based immigration, a policy which started with one of Senator Kennedy's most important civil rights bills. Popularly known as The '65 Act, that bill opened the country to immigrants from beyond northern Europe, literally redefining what it means to be American.
Beneath the surface of visa numbers and border patrol, the Senate gamble now is much bigger-- at stake is the very notion of the US as a multicultural nation bound not by blood, but by ideas and ideals.
Every major character in the film -- Frank, the advocate with a back channel to the White House; Esther, Kennedy's battle-seasoned Immigration Counsel; Cecilia, the brilliant policy strategist for the nation's largest Latino advocacy group -- has an intensely personal investment in the outcome of this fight.
But deep at the heart of this fast-moving story, below the level of strategy and protocol, we find a moral tale of modern American politics. Ted Kennedy, one of the handful of people who through his personal efforts had truly changed the face of America, now would be forced to decide how much did he want this deal, and what was he willing to trade for his greatest legacy?