Story 11 The Senate Speaks
January, 2006: The House just passed the toughest anti-amnesty, enforcement-only immigration bill in history. Immigrants feel targeted, and 'Sensenbrenner' (the bill's sponsor) becomes a household word for Latinos. Finally the Senate tackles immigration reform. Millions of people take to the streets all over the U.S., marching until a bi-partisan compromise modeled on last year's Kennedy-McCain bill goes to the Senate floor. But leaders in both parties seem to want an election issue, not a bill. Advocates smell a double-cross, and go public with an attack. What will it take for the Senate to respond?
Hundreds of bills are introduced in Congress every year. That‘s as far as many ever go: useful for campaign ads but dormant, nowhere near becoming law. By January, 2006, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act introduced by Kennedy, McCain, Kolbe, Flake and Guttierez in the spring of 2005, is one of those bills.
Last spring‘s Grand Bargain bill never moved even as far as committee markup or floor debate. Senators position to introduce competing bills, as the White House searches for the right political equation. On the House side, all last summer, Congressmen held “field hearings“ in local districts on the immigration problem, stacked with anti-amnesty voices. Pro-immigration advocates called these “faux hearings“. The media took note.
Two weeks before Christmas, 2005, the House passed its own Judiciary Committee‘s immigration bill, the toughest anti-amnesty, enforcement-only bill ever passed in the U.S. Congress. Quickly it became known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, having been been so publicly championed by the Committee Chairman.
With the bill's mandates for miles of border fencing, stringent enforcement against employers who hire illegal workers and new criminal penalties for illegal immigrants and anyone convicted of helping them, the entire immigrant community, and especially Latinos, feels targeted. “Sensenbrenner“ becomes a household word for Latinos across the country.
As Senator Lyndsey Graham says in a floor speech, “The House has spoken, now it‘s time for the Senate to speak...“. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, whose jurisdiction includes any immigration bill, signals he too intends to tackle immigration reform. He holds days of markups in March, considering every proposal on the table, including Kennedy-McCain, an enforcement-heavy Kyl-Cornyn bill and his own “Chairman‘s Mark“.
Any bill passed by the Senate still has to go to Conference Committee with the House, and that will mean conferencing with the Sensenbrenner Bill. Specter intends to get a new bill out of his committee with the largest margin of support possible, to carry it through to full Senate debate and Conference with a strong hand.
But Majority Leader Bill Frist, a senator often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, suddenly announces a surprise that puts a squeeze on Specter: Frist will introduce his own enforcement-only bill, written to conform nicely with Sensenbrenner, if the Judiciary Committee cannot complete its work by March 27th. The pressure is on, as Congress breaks for a week-long recess.
There‘s external pressure too. Ever since Sensenbrenner passed, a grassroots campaign initiated by Spanish language radio hosts and local activists has been urging immigrants and their families to reject the way the immigration debate is moving in Washington. During recess, millions and millions of people take to the streets in cities all over the U.S. daily, marching peacefully to demonstrate their disapproval -- and their numbers.
When Congress returns, Specter‘s Committee has nine hours left to complete a bill. And when the gavel falls at 6 pm, a bill quite a lot like Kennedy-McCain emerges from the Committee, with bi-partisan support and headed for debate on the Senate floor the next day. The triumph doesn‘t last long, though -- Advocate Frank Sharry tells a reporter just a couple of days later, “We were drinking the champagne that night, and we‘ve been getting our ass kicked ever since.“
On the Senate floor, the upcoming election season casts a shadow. Many consider the committee bill too generous an amnesty. As Republican Senators Martinez and Hagel try to broker a compromise, a new wrinkle appears on the Democrats‘ side: so many “hard votes“ crafted to lock opponents into an embarrassing positions for campaign ads are introduced as amendments, Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid opts to protect his caucus. He shuts down the Senate floor by refusing to allow amendments to be voted on at all.
Over the next 12 hours, the real fight begins. What has already been a tumultuous ride for the Kennedy-McCain bill becomes a a tilt-a-whirl, with many lessons on politics under pressure and the very real danger that appearances can pose.
As a new compromise comes together, leaders in both parties seem not to want a bill -- they want an election issue. Democrats feel their fortunes are looking up after 6 years of the Bush administration, while Republicans count more and more on an anti-immigrant base. The advocates smell a double-cross, and Frank and his colleagues go public with an attack.
Another recess, another week of rallies and marches, and another collapse on the brink of celebration still take place before the Senate votes. Behind the scenes, Kennedy and McCain keep working like the pros they are to build the support they need. It‘s an eight week tornado but on May 25th, S. 2611, a comprehensive immigration reform bill, wins final passage.
From the rest of the year, the House runs out the clock on the 109th Congress, refusing to appoint Conference Committee members. The final goal, getting a bill through both houses and into law, would have to wait until the next Congress. But on May 25th, when Kennedy and McCain‘s Grand Bargain passes the Senate, it is historic all the same.