“F*** you”: The inside story

The eruption of Senator John McCain at fellow Republican Sen. John Cornyn (TX) is an incident that reverberates on several levels. It renews lingering doubts about whether Senator McCain possesses the proper temperament to be president. It also raises serious questions about the substance of the “grand bargain” immigration bill that Senators Kennedy, Specter, McCain and others are attempting to rush through the Senate. (The written bill language was finally distributed to Senate offices early Saturday morning, 326 pages, still marked as a draft.)

When word of the McCain incident began to leak late Friday, we found Senate offices circling the wagons, trying to avoid talking about it. We believe that accounts published to date fail to provide the context necessary to understand the incident properly. We have pieced together the following account that we believe more accurately relates the incident and provides the necessary context.

Senator McCain has been largely missing from the Senate since late March, when it became apparent his fundraising operation was seriously lagging. Senator McCain hasn’t made a Senate vote in the past five weeks. But he wanted to be front and center when the immigration bargain was announced, and Kennedy and Specter did everything they could to accommodate him. They reserved the Senate press gallery room for 1:30 p.m. Thursday, just in time for Senator McCain to attend before heading out to New York for more fundraising.

A minor problem arose. Bush administration negotiators and a bipartisan Senate group had been meeting several days a week since February, often with glacial progress. (McCain rarely attended, though his staff was there.) As of Thursday morning, however, agreement hadn’t been reached. A final meeting started at 10 a.m. in hopes of finishing the deal. With a dozen Senators, two Cabinet members (Chertoff and Gutierrez) and perhaps 15 staffers in the room discussing an unpublished documents exceeding 300 pages in length, it was slow going. Senator Cornyn, tacitly supported by Sen. Jon Kyl, pushed hard to streamline legal procedures to allow prompt deportation of illegals. Senator Kennedy resisted.

As the clock moved closer to 1:30 p.m., Senator McCain suddenly lost it. “This is chickenshit,” he told Senator Cornyn. “I think it would expedite things if you would just leave the room, Senator, so we can get along with finishing this up.” Senator Cornyn responded: “Wait a minute. We’ve been meeting for three months on this in good faith, and now you parachute in here this morning and tell me to leave? I think you’re out of line.”

Senator McCain responded: “F*** you! I know what is going on here. I know more about immigration than anybody in this room!” Other Senators moved in to calm things down, and the talks went on. Senator Cornyn’s provision was not included. At 1:30 p.m. sharp, the conferees (not including Senators Cornyn or Menendez and a few other negotiators) were in the press gallery, congratulating each other. Senator Kennedy recognized Senator McCain early to make his televised comments, then Senator McCain departed before the press conference was over for a flight to New York City. Later that afternoon, he missed yet another Senate vote -– this one on the Democrats’ $2.9 trillion budget plan, an outline for the largest tax increase in U.S. history.

Two weeks ago, Senator McCain defended his reputation as a hothead on Fox News Sunday, saying he loses his temper only when he sees corruption and wasteful spending. This incident involved neither. It was instead a simple policy dispute, where he didn’t want to debate how his legislation would actually work.

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WHAT ABOUT THE SUBSTANCE of Senator Cornyn’s argument? It provides a revealing window into the process, and a lens for viewing the compromise on offer in the Senate bill.

The roots of the controversy date back to spring 2005, when Senators McCain and Kennedy filed their original immigration reform plan. It was immediately dubbed an amnesty proposal. Senator Cornyn and Senator Kyl (R-AZ) filed a competing plan about two months later. Cornyn-Kyl contained a complete approach to enforcement, including border security, workplace verification, interior enforcement, and measures that required those here illegally to return to their country of origin and get in line before becoming eligible for U.S. citizenship. McCain-Kennedy contained almost no enforcement, but concentrated instead on measures for illegals to stay and “earn” legalization through fines, work, learning English and avoiding criminal activity.

The House largely borrowed most of Cornyn-Kyl’s enforcement provisions and passed them in late 2005 and early 2006. The Senate instead favored McCain-Kennedy, finally adding some enforcement, renaming it Hagel-Martinez and approving it last summer. But GOP House leadership decided to make the Senate bill an election issue, and refused to go to conference. Even if they were right about the issue, Democrats won the election and took over Congress.

Border enforcement and workplace verification are obvious components of any effective plan, but relatively-obscure interior enforcement is just as important. Will Congress authorize and fund an infrastructure to catch, jail, prosecute and promptly deport those who continue to violate the plan? The 1986 amnesty also promised enforcement. It was never delivered. Unless the 2007 version provides more ICE enforcement agents, information-sharing authority to find and arrest illegals, beds to house them, prosecutors and judges to adjudicate their cases, and workable procedures for deportation, we’ll soon be back in the same position we’re now in.

Republicans had managed to amend Hagel-Martinez on the floor last year so that criminals and absconders could not receive amnesty. This is significant because the current system has produced 600,000 absconders – those under a deportation order who have disappeared while remaining free, itself a separate crime.

Republicans also pushed for a provision allowing DHS to halt “catch and release,” a step strongly supported by the Administration. In September, Homeland Security chief Chertoff wrote House Judiciary then-Chairman James Sensenbrenner saying that provision ending catch-and-release was absolutely necessary to enforcing our national immigration laws. Click to enlarge:

But this year, now in charge, Senator Kennedy declared this provision to be a “deal-breaker” and refused to include it. Cornyn was pressing again for a streamlined judicial review process, and other enforcement provisions, when McCain suddenly lost his patience. The bill released yesterday does not include the provision designed to end catch-and-release.

Opinion is mixed on congressional reaction to this bill. Lindsey Graham confidently predicted on Fox News Sunday today it would pass “overwhelmingly,” and mentioned 80 Senate votes as a possibility. But Harry Reid is trying to hurry it through with a preliminary vote Monday, followed shortly by a cloture motion, wrapping it all up by Friday. These are not measures that signal confidence.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt has been reading the bill and has collected links to his comments on it here. Hugh writes separately in a message to us today: “The bill’s indifference to terrorism is stunning.” Hugh links to NZ Bear’s online version of the draft immigration bill and Bear’s solicitation of commentary on it here.

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