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The Immigration Revolt Was Bipartisan

By Peter Brown

The immigration mess showed that not every divisive issue in American politics is partisan. Much has been made of the split among Republicans over immigration, but in the end it was the division among Senate Democrats that was the most surprising.

The key question this raises is whether Democrats, who regained their congressional majority with candidates who might not adhere to every tenet of party orthodoxy, can control those folks when they need them.

Of course, immigration was a defeat for President Bush. But given his dreadful poll numbers, it is no surprise he can't control Republicans on an issue in which the majority fundamentally disagree with him.

If the Democratic leadership can't control its troops, then it won't be any more successful than were the Republicans in recent years when it comes to getting Congress to tackle the big stuff that Washington, D.C. seems unable to solve.

Just as in recent years when Bush often could not win over GOP lawmakers who weren't sufficiently conservative, the Democrats have a problem with their members who aren't die-hard liberals.

Any notion that the Democrats' bare 51-49 Senate edge and similar percentage margin in the House translates into real control is illusionary. And, ironically, the reason is a result of the way they fashioned their new majority.

To be sure Democrats and Republicans have differing views and values, but the inability of Congress to come up with an acceptable immigration solution stems from as many intra-party divides as partisan ones.

There were both Democratic and Republican senators who thought the measure did not tilt enough toward immigrants' rights, and those who thought it unacceptably slanted in that direction. At the margins, the majority of Republicans wanted to err on the side of toughness and the Democrats wanted to make it less onerous for illegal immigrants.

Democrats took Congress last November by winning the deciding seats in conservative states where the party had suffered recently.

Many, perhaps naively, assumed that the results meant that the country was moving further left from its more conservative perch that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But, the 2006 sweep wasn't necessarily the result of a public decision that the Republican worldview was wrong. Rather it was the public's judgment about competence, reflecting popular frustration with the bogged-down war in Iraq, Republican congressional scandals and profligate spending.

Democrats who were sent to Congress from those conservative states last November did not necessarily share the views and values of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and aging liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy.

The $64,000 question was always whether the new members would follow the lead of their generally more liberal, senior brethren who controlled the Democratic agenda.

Freshmen Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Jim Webb of Virginia voted were among the 15 Democrats who helped kill the immigration bill. It turned out their votes were not decisive. The margin of defeat was so large because a majority of senators up for re-election in 2008 decided it was in their best interests to oppose the bill.

But had the Democrats who wanted a bill more generous towards immigrant rights - and voted against the bill because they thought it too tough -- gotten their way, then these three might well have been enough to kill that more liberal proposal.

In all, 14 of the 15 Democrats who voted to kill immigration reform were from states that George W. Bush carried in 2004. They understood that to survive in Red America they can't always toe the Democratic line.

And, let's not forget had the immigration compromise emerged from the Senate, its chances of passage were even lower in the House.

In the end, the lesson from the immigration debacle on Capitol Hill is that the leadership of neither party can be assured of delivering their rank-in-file members when it counts.

On the Republican side that's because of palpable disillusionment with the White House incompetence. Ironically, among the Democrats, the differences with the leadership might well be a matter of ideology.

That's what happens when the Democratic criteria for finding candidates are elect ability first and philosophy second.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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