“What’s going on in there?” I asked Kate Obenshain Griffin, Virginia’s Republican chairman, as I left my car at the Capitol Hilton and prepared to go inside for the afternoon session of the Republican National Committee meeting yesterday. “It’s pretty dull,” she replied, “except for the resolution on immigration. I think you better get in there.”
Griffin was right. In a move that showed that—the President’s sagging popularity and his lame duck status notwithstanding—the Bush White House still flexes considerable muscle within the Republican Party. After circulating a petition last year among fellow RNC Members, Arizona’s Republican National Committeeman Randy Pullen secured nine co-sponsors in support of his measure putting the RNC on the record against a guest worker program. Under national party rules, that’s enough to bypass the GOP’s Resolutions Committee and bring a measure to the full RNC for a vote.
Given the growing chasm between the Administration and GOP grass-roots activists on the issue of illegal immigration, the Pullen measure could well have paved the way for the most incendiary debate at an RNC meeting since the party’s ruling members eight years ago voted down a measure to deny funding to candidates opposed to a ban on partial birth abortion.
But it was not to be. An alternative resolution supporting legal immigration and criticizing illegal immigration and endorsing a guest worker program for workers from abroad was offered and passed by voice vote. Although Pullen could have mustered enough votes for a roll call (as there was in the 1998 ban on donations to pro-partial birth abortion candidates, which was defeated), the Arizonan promptly withdrew his resolution. Several sources told me that Pullen chose the better part of valor in part because of language in the alternative measure calling on Congress to make the issue of illegal immigration a priority when it convenes at the end of the month and stating there should be “no amnesty for those persons presently in the United States illegally.”
“It was a good compromise,” North Carolina’s State GOP Chairman Ferrel Blount told me shortly after the vote, “I did not want to see a sense of the RNC resolution tie the hands of the White House on this important issue.” Blount added his view that a “guest worker program is not be confused with an amnesty.” North Dakota Republican National Committeewoman Connie Nicholas agreed, saying “we shared differences on [the issue of illegal immigration] and handled it all well when we came up with the resolution.” Commenting on the civility of the debate and avoidance of harsh rhetoric, Massachusetts Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman told me: “The process worked, and I hoped Senate Democrats were watching so they can handle themselves as well during the debate on [Supreme Court nominee] Samuel Alito.”
Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman, however, told the Washington Times that the compromise resolution “reflected where the President was.” To critics of the guest worker program who do believe it is an amnesty despite White House insistence to the contrary, the compromise was strong evidence that, whatever the views of individual Republicans on the party’s national umbrella organization, they are still going to behave like the docile spouses in The Stepford Wives and go along with whatever their man in the White House wants.
“The President wants a guest worker program,” Pullen told reporters yesterday, “If that’s what he thinks needs to be done, he’s going to have to articulate to the Republican Party exactly what that plan means. I haven’t heard it yet.”