The partisan blame game was already at fever pitch as the bill was going down Thursday. But to those far removed from the backrooms on Capitol Hill, what happened will fuel cynicism toward a political system that appears incapable of finding ways to resolve the big challenges facing the country.
If Washington cannot produce a solution to the glaring problem of immigration, they will ask, what hope is there for progress on the cost and coverage of health care, energy independence or the financial challenges looming for Medicare and Social Security. Iraq is another matter entirely.
Voters wanted an immigration deal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., acknowledged as he pulled the measure after 9 p.m. Thursday night: "The problem was on the inside of this Senate chamber."
The collective failure of the two parties already appears to have stimulated interest in an independent or third-party candidate for president in 2008, whose main promise will be to make Washington work. It is far too early to assess the viability of such a candidate, but it is easy to imagine the immigration impasse finding its way into a television commercial if someone like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decides to run next year.
Twice in two years now Congress has grappled with immigration. The first time, Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, but President Bush could not persuade members of his own deeply divided party to resolve their disagreements. The Republicans, responding to their conservative base, pushed for a tough border security bill but balked at dealing with the controversial question of how to treat the 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country.
Favored to succeed
This time the prospects seemed brighter. The November midterm elections changed the balance of power in Washington, with Democrats now in control of the Capitol. The bipartisan compromise bill in the Senate enjoyed the support of the president and Senate Democratic leaders and some prominent senators from both parties - the kind of coalition that many politicians claim to prize. The immigration bill still ended up in a heap.
The Senate yesterday fell 15 votes short in an attempt to invoke cloture end debate and proceed to a final vote on the bipartisan immigration compromise bill. Most commentators see that failure as the collapse of the effort to reform the immigration laws at least for this session of Congress. That outcome is being described as a major defeat for President Bush. McClatchy describes the vote as a "devastating setback" for Bush, and the Washington Post says Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "was quick to place responsibility for the defeat on Bush." Not so Speaker Pelosi, however. MSNBC's Hardball ran an excerpt of an interview with her in which she said, "Bush has been a leader on the immigration issue. He knows what the right thing is to do, and he has acted upon it." The New York Times reports the vote was "a significant setback for the president. It came mainly at the hands of members of his own party after he championed the measure in the hope of claiming it as a major achievement on domestic policy in the last months of his administration." Similarly, the AP says the "stunning setback" costs Bush "perhaps his best opportunity to win a top domestic priority."
USA Today, under the headline "Immigration Bill Not Dead Yet, Backers Say," calls the vote a "potentially fatal setback," and the Los Angeles Times notes Reid "left open the possibility that lawmakers could still reach a decision on immigration legislation," even as he "called on Bush to do more to help." The Washington Times was less equivocal, however, announcing that "the immigration 'grand bargain' imploded," while The Politico titled its report "Immigration Dead." USA Today runs a second story under the headline, "Immigration Vote Stuns Senate Supporters," in which it casts doubt on the future of the bill, and Dana Milbank, in his Washington Post column, says the cloture motion "took a lopsided beating -- and so, at least for now, did any prospect of closure on immigration." Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports the legislation "stumbled badly," and notes "no timetable was given for trying to revive the legislation."
Curiously, the apparent collapse of the immigration deal comes 24 hour after most press reports predicted the worst was over for the bill in the Senate and suggested the real challenge to the immigration measure would come in the House. Such assessments appeared in yesterday's Washington Post, The Hill, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among others.
Why Did The Bill Fail? NBC Nightly News said that in both parties, "you've got the extremes on the left and right trying to kill the entire bill rather than accept provisions they detest." The Washington Post says "the collapse of comprehensive immigration revision in the Senate last night represents a political defeat for" Bush, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, "the bill's most prominent sponsors. More significantly, it represents a scathing indictment of the political culture of Washington."
The Washington Times offers a different interpretation, reporting that "an immigration alliance with Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts is damaging" Sens. McCain and Graham "among conservative Republicans. The damage to the two Republican senators caused by their support for Mr. Kennedy's immigration bill...is especially clear in Mr. Graham's home state, scene of an early presidential primary next year."
Fox Poll: Only 34% Back Senate Bill Fox News Channel Special Report, meanwhile, reported, "The latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll shows 58% support enforcement of existing laws. Only 34% back an overhaul of immigration laws along the lines of the Senate compromise."