Why the Immigration Deal Flopped

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CHIP SOMODEVILLA / GETTY IMAGES

The Unhappy Couple: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Majority Leader Bill Frist on the Hill yesterday

Talk about cold feet. Less than 24 hours after the leaders of the Senate’s Democratic and Republican families had announced a marriage of convenience on immigration reform, Minority Leader Harry Reid ditched his Republican counterpart Bill Frist at the altar Friday, blocking the bi-partisan bill he had backed the day before. Stunned Senators headed to their home states for a two-week Easter recess, furious over the break-up. “It's a war,” said Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter. Even members of Reid's own party, most notably Senator Ted Kennedy, who had worked for five years on an effective amnesty for the country's millions of illegal immigrants, was said to be furious.

Disappointed members of both parties say it was Reid's election-year ambitions that ultimately doomed the immigration bill. The Democrats have a legitimate chance to take back control of the Senate in November, and for a life-long politician like Reid, few things are more important than the opportunity to lead the world's greatest deliberative body, his critics say. A victory for Bill Frist on an issue as nationally charged as immigration would not help the Democrats come election day. "It's not gone forward because there's a political advantage for the Democrats not to have an immigration bill," Specter said.

But it's not that simple. After all, Reid had been ready to walk down the aisle Thursday night, largely because the compromise he, Frist and 63 other Senators had embraced was as close to perfect as any bill the Democrats could hope for. It followed Ted Kennedy's plan to put most of the country's 12 million illegal immigrants (except for the estimated one million or so who have been in the U.S. for less than two years) on an eventual path to citizenship and open up a massive new legal immigration system for low-wage workers; at the same time, it would have removed many of the draconian penalties that were in a bill passed by the House last December.

In retrospect, however, it may have been too perfect. After initially signing on, Reid decided he might be walking into a trap. Some Republicans wanted to vote on amendments that Reid believed would have essentially picked apart the compromise plan; under one of them, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security would have had to certify that the border was secure before any illegal immigrants could be made legal.

What's more, even if he could defeat the amendments, any bill the Senate passed would have to go into a conference committee with the House — which wants to build a wall along much of the U.S.-Mexico border, criminalize all illegal immigrants in the U.S., and dramatically increase the penalties against those who help them, from businesses to churches. Looking several moves ahead in a game of legislative chess, Reid feared that the conference would produce something that looked more like the House bill, which currently has no amnesty provisions for making current illegals citizens, than the Senate version.

Granted, when such a watered down bill came back to the Senate, Reid could still block it by filibustering. But in a election year, Reid knew that could be political suicide, forcing fellow Democrats to vote against a bill Republicans would portray as securing America's broken borders. Those Democrats who were around in the last mid-term election are still smarting from the votes they cast against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, an issue Republicans cashed in handily at the polls. Giving Frist another National Security vote to beat the Democrats with, they feared, was a sure fire way to let Republicans maintain control of the Senate this fall.

Reid had tried to get some kind of guarantee from Frist that Republican Senators would support only the Senate version in conference, and over the last 24 hours, Sen. John McCain worked to sign colleagues on for just such an assurance. Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, tried to be reassuring. “The Senate will defend the Senate position,” he said. But Reid wanted more than that. “We have no safety net here,” says a top Reid aide, “The Republicans have the President, the Senate and the House.” In negotiations that lasted all night, Reid's staff insisted on a say in the make-up of the conference committee, but Frist wouldn't budge. “No majority leader is going to sign away the power of the office or turn a weaker majority leader's gavel over to his successors,” Ueland said Friday.

In the end, Reid chose the only other way to avoid the potential trap, which was to walk away from the deal.Yet that deal is not completely dead. Specter vowed Friday that he would take the compromise up in committee first thing on his return to Washington and would send it to the Senate floor a week later.

Frist has not said whether he will bring it back to the floor for a vote, but two things could affect that decision. Serious pressure from the White House to get a deal — pressure that so far, despite the President's occasional public statements, has been virtually non-existent — could move Republicans forward. Or a backlash against the massive protests planned by pro-immigration groups in coming days could make them dig in their heels. The Senate's dealmakers —John McCain, Ted Kennedy, Chuck Hagel, Mel Martinez, Barack Obama and others — say they will continue their weekly meetings in search of a compromise. For now though, as Kennedy put it in what amounted to a major understatement, “politics got in front of policy.”