The Dems' Make-or-Break Move on Immigration

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U.S. Senator Harry Reid

If you have tuned in to the debate over immigration reform this week, you know that it hasn't been pretty, even by the standards of the United States Senate. "My hope is that sanity could return to this chamber," Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, groused on the floor Wednesday morning. "If it existed, it is gone."

But there may be a method to what Senator Specter calls madness, or at least a strategy. In a rare and high-stakes move, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has hijacked the proceedings, and appears headed toward forcing a vote on the sweeping bill that passed the Judiciary Committee last week, without allowing much by way of modification in the form of amendments.

It is a risky strategy. Reid's gambit is a procedural move known as "invoking cloture," something almost never attempted by the minority, because it requires 60 votes to pass. If it works, the bill goes pretty much intact to a final vote, where it could pass with only 51 Senators. But if Reid falls short of the 60 votes required for cloture, the bill — and with it quite possibly all prospects for meaningful immigration reform this year — may well be dead.

The strategy to go for all or nothing was hatched by key Democrats late Tuesday afternoon, between votes on the Senate floor. Sources say a group of leading Democrats — including Reid, Minority Whip Richard Durbin, Senator Edward Kennedy and ranking Judiciary Democrat Patrick Leahy — had feared that amendments planned by Republicans would transform the bill into something Democrats could not accept, by chipping away at so-called amnesty provisions that allow for legalizing some of the people who are currently in the country illegally. Not incidentally, they also want to prevent Democrats from being put in the uncomfortable position of having to vote against politically popular amendments that would toughen border security, as the less forgiving House immigration bill does. Democrats also fear that, facing a looming two-week congressional recess that could stall the bill's momentum, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is trying to run out the clock.

With his action, Reid has set the clock ticking for a Thursday morning vote. At this point, Senate strategists acknowledge that Reid and his allies are still a few short, with 39 or 40 Democrats upon whom they can rely, and perhaps 18 Republicans.

Meanwhile, Republicans are outraged. In debate Wednesday, Senator John Cornyn of Texas called Reid's move "intolerable and inexcusable," a mockery of the democracy that America is trying to export to the rest of the world. And even Arizona Republican John McCain, one of the authors of the approach that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and that is supported by most Democrats, complained. "We should not be afraid to debate these issues and to vote on them," McCain said. "We're here to take tough votes." McCain warned that he would not vote for Reid's cloture motion on Thursday.

In the meantime, the real action is taking place behind closed doors outside the Senate chamber, as frantic negotiations continue to come up with a workable compromise that could produce the final votes. "We are close," McCain said. A key sticking point is how to address the situation of the estimated 11 million people who are in this country illegally. Where the initial bill that passed the Judiciary Committee would give all of them a chance to earn legalization, one option under negotiation would allow that only for people who arrived before a certain date. That exact date, like so much else of the immigration reform circus currently playing on Capitol Hill, has yet to be decided.