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Who Really Killed Immigration Bill?

By Ruben Navarrette

In politics, it helps to know what you want -- and what you don't want. And Senate Democrats don't want immigration reform.

At least now it's out in the open. There was a hint of it last year when then-Minority Leader Harry Reid nearly put the kibosh on the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill. The negotiation almost came undone because Reid blocked amendments. Organized labor was pleased since it looked as if it would avoid the one element of reform that gives it the jitters: guest workers. And while Latinos were angry, Reid and Co. convinced them that it was Republicans who did them wrong -- just in time for the 2006 elections.

Now that Democrats are in charge, there are opportunities for more mischief -- such as ruining a bipartisan immigration compromise.

Then again, maybe the bill isn't a goner. President Bush and members of the administration are intervening this week in hopes of saving it. That won't be easy, especially since the narrative is being spun that Bush and his administration are to blame for not pushing hard enough for the bill.

That's insane. Contrast that to what happened a few weeks ago when Bush scolded conservatives for fearing ethnic diversity. At the time, critics such as CNN's Lou Dobbs claimed that Bush was pushing too hard, even to the point of "playing the race card."

Of course, the dominant narrative is that it was Senate Republicans and the anti-amnesty mob that put the immigration bill on life support.

It dovetails conveniently with what the right wing is saying. The day after Reid pulled the bill, San Diego-based radio talker Roger Hedgecock celebrated with a victory gaffe. Sitting in for Rush Limbaugh, Hedgecock insisted that the "amnesty bill" was done in because of pressure from the right.

"You did this," Hedgecock proudly told the show's conservative listeners. "You stopped this bill."

How clueless. Now I realize that right-wing radio talkers are eager to convince the base that they accomplished something with their calls, e-mails and protests. But what happened to a little thing called reality?

If it's any comfort, at the other end of the spectrum, liberals and immigrant advocates are just as clueless in doling out blame.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy organization, blamed the breakdown on "politicians -- particularly Republicans -- not wanting to confront obstinate members of their own parties."

You don't say? It seems that's all Republicans have been doing lately: fighting among themselves as reformers confront restrictionists. Too bad you can't say the same for Democrats, who didn't stand up to obstinate forces in organized labor.

Then there is the dependably wrongheaded New York Times editorial board, which opposed the bill rather than settle for half a loaf, and then complained when it wound up with nary a crumb. For that, The Times blamed "Republican amendments, designed to shred the compromise."

You don't say? Those would be the same Republican amendments that went down in flames. One amendment would have denied citizenship to any illegal immigrant who uses fake documents. Another would have required those who want legal status to buy health insurance. Still another would have denied legalization to individuals under court orders to be deported. All came from Republicans, and all were defeated.

Don't lose sight of the obvious. First, Democrats are now in control of Congress. Second, the hardest blow to the bill came from a Democrat -- Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota -- who proposed a five-year "sunset" for the guest worker plan that pleased organized labor but weakened the support of business groups. Finally, the whole debate was fast-tracked because Reid kept threatening to pull the bill if it didn't win enough votes for cloture before his arbitrary deadline.

Curiously, Reid sabotaged what he called "the president's bill" even though some Republican and Democratic supporters, along with the White House, were convinced it was moving in the direction of cloture. In the first vote, only 33 senators voted to end debate. But by the second vote, that number had climbed to 45. So why did Reid pull the plug? Gee, could it be that the Senate's leading Democrat didn't want the bill to make it out of the Senate?
Reid says he yanked the bill because it was failing. I don't buy it. I think he yanked it because it had a chance of succeeding. And if the bill comes back, it could yet succeed -- assuming that it clears its highest hurdle: Harry Reid.

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 Ruben Navarrette
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