The Week Ahead: Fallout from the Immigration Bill

The highly controversial immigration bill — and all its political fallout, raining down on President Bush and Republican senators and presidential candidates — will dominate the week ahead.

The first question is whether the tremendous outpouring of outrage from the conservative base will cause Republicans to reconsider the rush to ratify a bill hundreds of pages long and poorly understood by most senators. Saxby Chambliss(R.-Ga.) and Lindsey Graham(R.-S.C.), two Republican backers of the bill, were both booed by Republican audiences over the weekend as they tried to defend their position. Since confusion abounds as to the bill’s provisions, some Senators may see that the safer course politically (and certainly a defensible one from a conscientious policy making perspective) would be to slow the train and figure out what is in the bill. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell(R.-Ky.) on ABC’s "This Week" seemed to agree on Sunday saying that “this is not a one week bill” and that the bill “may get better” in the legislative process.

Already Republicans ranging from Jeff Sessions(R.-Ala.) to Bob Corker(R.-Tenn.) have announced their opposition. On the Democratic side, Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.) and Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) both expressed concerns about the bill’s affect on family reunification provisions. An odd political alliance of labor unions, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans (not to mention pro-immigrant groups disappointed over the guest worker provisions) may be all that is standing in the way of Senate passage of the bill.

Meanwhile, the bill will soon impact the Republican presidential primaries. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) has gambled that this bill will not imperil his candidacy. Byron York of NRO reported on Friday that McCain’s staff replied to his inquiry about conservatives’ reaction to the bill by saying that: “The people who are particularly exercised about this probably weren’t going to be supporting John McCain to begin with.” Nevertheless, most polls, including the HUMAN EVENTS reader poll, suggest that illegal immigration rates very high on Republicans’ list of concerns. After a month with two strong debate performances, improved polling and well received speeches, McCain will, at the very least, find a challenging campaign atmosphere and heightened criticism from conservative pundits.

As for the other candidates, the immigration fight carries a mixed blessing for Governor Romney. His swift denunciation of the bill was welcomed by some conservatives, but critics were quick to point out that this may represent just one more flip flop, citing his statements in last week’s debate and others as recent as 2005 praising comprehensive reform. Those close to the Giuliani campaign clarified over the weekend that his statements reminding voters of the Fort Dix incident and emphasizing the primacy of security measures (e.g. tamper proof identity cards and a national database) indicated serious concerns about the bill. Fred Thompson also weighed in against the bill with a statement urging a border enforcement first approach, another indication that his entry into the race is no longer in doubt.

If not for immigration, the Iraq War would continue to dominate the headlines. At the end of last week a new War Czar, Douglas Lute, was named. Although Lute previously had expressed doubts about the surge he agreed to take the job after others, according to leaks from an increasingly porous administration, had turned down the post.

Meanwhile, Bush rejected an offer from Congressional Democrats to strip some of the pork from their funding bill. Although willing to discuss “benchmarks,” Bush still insists that failure to meet them should not trigger withdrawal of forces. On Sunday McConnell indicated that the John Warner’s (R.-Virg.) bill which contained benchmarks but no troop pullout deadline was the path to a deal. Interestingly, he also noted that if the Iraqi Parliament were to vote in favor of U.S. troop withdrawal we would have to honor that, although leave troops deployed in the region.

Meanwhile, Paul Wolfowitz is gone and Alberto Gonzales remains, for now. President Bush has vowed to name a quick replacement to the World Bank. As for Gonzales, the Democratic Senators’ planned a no-confidence vote may actually succeed in the wake of the revelations about his role in the hospital visit to secure an ailing John Ashcroft’s approval for a terrorism surveillance program. Conservative Republicans, never enamored of Gonzales and none too pleased with the President after the immigration bill announcement, seem in no mood to thwart an attempt to embarrass the Administration.

The common theme running through all these events is an Administration on political life support. On Saturday the Rasmussen Report poll recorded its lowest approval for Bush at 34%, with Republican support dropping to 71%. With public support for Iraq falling, an immigration bill instigating a bitter fight within the GOP and ongoing reminders like Gonzales of an increasingly befuddled administration, Congressional Republicans may begin to break more openly and more frequently with the Administration. Fewer Republicans may see political advantage in sticking with the President on the surge (especially if the Iraqi government makes no progress on measures like oil revenue sharing and takes a leisurely summer vacation) or on other administration efforts such as reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

Political Forecast for the Week: torrential criticism pouring down on immigration will make campaigning conditions hazardous. Republicans wishing to survive the storm should be advised to proceed cautiously and prevent legislation from slipping through.