A Brazen Political Ploy on Immigration?

Washington Matters

A Brazen Political Ploy on Immigration?

More than a few people think President Obama and Harry Reid are making a cheap and cynical play for the Latino votes.

A lot of folks were surprised last week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed on a calendar that puts a comprehensive immigration bill ahead of a climate change bill. Some were downright angry. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of S.C., who has been working with Democrats to craft bipartisan legislation on both issues, called it a cynical ploy aimed at appeasing Hispanic voters, and dropped out of the negotiations.

President Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to push for immigration reform in his first year, and he has been under growing pressure from Hispanic groups to move now, while Democrats still have big majorities in the House and Senate. Reid promised to do just that, surprising even his own colleagues when he told a campaign crowd he’d bring a bill to the floor as early as June.

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And now the new Arizona immigration law, which makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally, has upped the ante considerably, with Obama and many other Democrats warning that other states will act unilaterally -- and unwisely -- unless the federal government gets out in front of this issue.

Though Reid’s announcement appeared to come out of the blue, private talks on a bill have been under way for some time, with labor and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, working hard to craft an agreement that will tighten borders, bring more immigrants into the U.S. legally and provide a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.


Graham told Obama a month ago that he wouldn’t introduce the bill he worked out with N.Y. Democrat Charles Schumer unless Obama could help persuade one more GOP senator to cosponsor it. Obama called several of them last week (Scott Brown, Mass., Judd Gregg, N.H., Richard Lugar, Ind., and Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, among them) to try to win them over, but the best he could do was get a promise to keep an open mind. And now he may lose Graham, though Graham is also in an uncomfortable position. After chastising Obama for not pushing hard enough for an immigration bill, how does he now blame him for pushing too hard?

With or without Republican support, Reid has a lot to gain politically by making a push now. He faces a tough reelection campaign in a state -- Nevada-- where Latinos make up 15% of the population. If he can galvanize Hispanics and get them to the polls in November, it could make the difference between victory and defeat. He doesn’t even have to succeed. In fact, to cement support among Hispanics, who backed Obama 2-1 in 2008, Reid and other Democrats only have to push hard enough to make it clear that Republicans are standing in the way.

And therein lies the reason for cynicism. Few in Washington really think enough progress has been made in the negotiations to believe immigration has any chance of passage. It doesn’t. Even if the Senate somehow manages to pass a bill, the House won’t. Too many Democrats who represent conservative swing districts feel they’ve already walked the plank for too many Obama initiatives.

So if there’s no chance for success, why try now? The only plausible reason is to influence the November elections. But good politics is often bad policy. Obama will likely get only one chance to win passage of an immigration bill, and it would be foolish to squander it when failure is inevitable. Some Hispanic leaders have begun to make that point, though they’re not yet in a majority.