Frist Appears Powerless in Immigration Debate

The downfall of the immigration reform and border security bill in the U.S. Senate demonstrated the power that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wields.

The Washington Post was correct in editorializing that Democrats had killed the immigration bill, but not all Democrats were to blame. It was Reid who decided that immigration is better used as a political issue than a legislative one, hence his decision to block all amendments, leading to the bill’s death on the floor.

At a meeting of principals, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) proposed a compromise by which some amendments to toughen the bill would receive a vote on the floor. Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the bill’s sponsors, were both open to the compromise, as were Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who wanted to amend the bill. But Reid refused. When his refusal sent Kennedy into an angry tirade, Reid left the room. Apparently, Kennedy really wanted a bill, period—or at least he put on a pretty good show of wanting one.

Reid had been the most measured in his rhetoric about the prematurely heralded compromise bill by Senators Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). One can only speculate, but Reid probably would have acted to kill any bill. Republicans’ insistence on amendments only made his task easier.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took Reid’s side. He reportedly remarked to a colleague that he didn’t care whether a bill passed because Democrats would gain three Senate seats this fall and return to construct an immigration bill as they liked. Schumer was previously the architect of the bend-don’t-break strategy that cost Democrats badly on the issue of judicial nominations. But on immigration, his strategy just might be the right one. Unlike the judicial issue, on which he managed to unleash the Right’s anger at his own party, Schumer and Reid are actually harnessing the Right’s rage over the immigration issue to unleash it against Republicans.

The comments of House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Sunday—that a guest-worker bill would be inappropriate until border security had been finished—represents a change of direction, a new recognition that the immigration bill is dead. Senators rejected cloture on a stand-alone border-enforcement bill after the compromise on the immigration bill died. This could become a weapon for Republicans in some races. No Democrat supported the enforcement bill, although several Republicans as well voted against it. Most Republican senators apparently don’t understand the political benefit of putting Democrats on the record against border security.

The result was a wasted week of the legislative calendar, and the pathetic sight of majority Republicans on the floor whining about amendments as if they were members of the minority. Frist is mostly to blame for this outcome, as he appears to have lost control of the Senate. (Reid and Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are the most powerful at the moment. Reid has already gotten the better of Specter now on both asbestos litigation reform and immigration, even though Specter has won on Supreme Court confirmations. )

In this immigration debate, Frist had already failed the minute he turned the floor over to Specter, letting the Democrat-inspired Judiciary Committee bill come up as a substitute to his own bill. Were he more assertive, Frist would have scuttled Specter’s bill as a Democratic product that could never pass, and proceeded to his own border security bill. Senators could have added guest-worker amendments on the floor. Common sense dictates that the immigration bill most likely to pass on the floor is one that is constructed on the floor, amendment by amendment. The Judiciary Committee just was not a good place to build a passable bill, because four or five of the Republicans on the committee were in agreement with the Democrats on key provisions liberalizing immigration law.

The immigration saga is the latest proof that Frist is not working from an agenda—seeking to accomplish specific policy goals—but instead sees himself as a legislative traffic cop, a dealmaker who exchanges promises of floor time and lets the Senate take up whatever bills come down the pike. Compounding Republicans’ problems is President Bush, who has demonstrated a similar lack of leadership generally. Conservatives are learning now that they must treat Frist and Bush almost as enemies and employ threats in order to get anything out of them. This is why some of the Republicans put a hold on the debt limit recently in order to exact promises of floor time for certain budget process reforms.

A note: Reid, on the other side, has shown his skill once again at dragging out the legislative calendar. Despite a 10-seat disadvantage in the upper chamber of Congress, he has figured out numerous ways of milking the clock, draining away the last precious days of the large GOP Senate majority. The entire week he managed to waste on the immigration bill was a serious accomplishment. Reid likewise forced the waste of an entire week on the asbestos issue.