Feelings on immigration are running high these days, but the thought that they may prevent any action at all scares many Republicans.
Congressional conservatives remain adamantly opposed to the quasi-amnesty and “guest worker” provisions in the Senate approach supported by the president, Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and are vowing that no bill that comes out of conference including such an amnesty will win House approval. Bush and his allies are just as committed to a bill that will include both.
Both sides say they favor border security but seem quite prepared to sacrifice action on it unless they get their way on the rest of the bill. The result, of course, could be no bill at all and an open political sore that will fester during the upcoming elections.
Administration strategists believe that once they get to conference they’ll be able to cajole, bribe or force House Republicans to accept most if not all of what the president wants and that a conference report including both the administration’s quasi-amnesty provisions and the guest-worker program will, in fact, pass the House. They base this belief on their ability to work with House Republican leaders as they have in the past to force conservatives into line, Democratic support for their approach and the fear among many Washington-based Republicans that doing anything will beat doing nothing.
That fear is in many ways peculiar to Washington, where it is an article of faith that if problems are taken off the table by passing something dealing with them the public will be mollified, regardless of the substance. The Bush administration has operated on this theory from the beginning and is just now discovering that the president’s base is splintering because of the substance of what he’s done, rather than because he hasn’t done enough.
Thus administration spokesmen bragging about Bush’s accomplishments tend to list the very same legislative achievements that conservatives outside the Washington Beltway list as reasons for their alienation. Indeed, as the administration and Republican congressional leaders piled “accomplishment” on “accomplishment,” Republicans around the country became more and more disillusioned with what was going on.
What none of them seems to realize is that the public, or at least the politically attentive public, is as interested in what they do as in the fact that they do something.
On immigration, the public has been demanding from the outset that control of the border must precede any discussion of legal immigration levels, procedures designed to deal with illegals already here or various measures that would make it easier for those seeking work here to gain temporary or semipermanent access to such work. The administration’s desire to solve all these problems in one package may make some logical sense but ignores the fact that such comprehensive proposals at present lack credibility with the public.
Failing to address the border issue could result in political disaster, but so could the adoption of legislation seen by the voting public as likely to make the problem it is meant to solve even worse. The Senate approach is already seen in this light. It won’t solve the political problem and should be rejected by House GOP conferees regardless of whatever pressure they might come under from the administration or their leaders.
It also means, however, that the Senate, the administration and House conservatives have to seek common ground in dealing with the problem in a manner that enhances border security, rejects amnesty and deals reasonably with those illegals here today and with the legitimate need to match those who come here legally with willing employers who will play by the rules.
Fortunately, there are some seeking solutions to these problems that neither surrender principle nor ignore real problems. Chief among them is Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who has put forth an alternative that could attract support from reasonable men and women on both sides of the debate. There is no more credible conservative in Congress today than Pence. He has proved himself over time as both a serious legislator and a principled conservative capable of resisting the temptations and threats emanating from within his own party.
Since speaking out at the Heritage Foundation just before the recess, Pence has come under attack from those on both sides willing to accept the status quo unless they get their own way. Those attacks in themselves should force reasonable members of Congress to take a serious look at Pence’s proposal.
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