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The immigration bill: What happened?

I have yet to see a fair retrospective on either round 1 or round 2 of the immigration bill fiasco. I spoke this week with senior Senate staffers on background and with Senator Norm Coleman in a telephone press conference following the failure of the bill in its second incarnation. I asked Senator Coleman about the “cramdown” process that was used to advance the legislation in the Senate.
Senator Coleman demurred from my characterization of the process, but acknowledged that the effort to shut down debate the first time around was “a critical mistake.” He said he was “trying to be magnanimous” toward the decisions made by Senate leadership to advance the bill, but that the leadership should have allowed amendments and two to three weeks of debate on them.
I offer these comments provisionally in the sprit of inquiry, believing that the events of the past week are important beyond themselves. The process questions are in my view the key to understanding both the bill and what transpired with the bill.
Working with the president’s designated representatives, Senate leadership and staff of Senate supporters negotiated a comprehensive overhaul of the 40-year-old immigration act of 1965. (As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization, Senator Kennedy ushered the 1965 bill through the Senate. Although he must be proud of his handiwork, he characterizes the current regime as a nightmare.)
We outlined events surrounding the first appearance of the bill in “F*** you: The inside story.” Our conclusion in that account is worth recalling:

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 [May 21], followed shortly by a cloture motion, wrapping it all up by Friday. These are not measures that signal confidence.

Procedural measures adopted from the outset to advance the bill — the avoidance of hearings, the limitation of debate and amendment — are consistent with the understanding of the bill’s backers that the bill could not withstand extended scrutiny. (Our friend Hugh Hewitt immediately examined the bill and picked it apart on the first day its massive text was made available to the public. If Pulitzer Prizes were awarded on the basis of merit, Hugh would have won his that weekend.) One Senate source characterized the approach this way: “If light shined on the bill, the public wouldn’t like it. So minimize floor time.” The bill died the first time around on June 7.
After continuing discussions the bill was revived. Instead of an open amendment process, Senator Reid decided to use the obscure “clay pigeon” tool. The revised version of the bill and amendments subject to consideration were themselves an object of mystery. Referring, I think (my notes are unclear), to the 373-page amendment to the 400-page bill, one Senate source says, “We didn’t see the text until it had already been posted on the AILA [American Immigration Lawyers Association] site.”
I was told that the “clay pigeon” device had “never before in Senate history been used by the Senate Majority Leader to shut out debate or the ability of Senators to offer amendments. They cherry picked amendments for consideration and failed miserably. They worked behind closed doors to avoid transparency.”
What happened? Senate sources emphasize that the vote was in reality much closer than the cloture tally indicated. The White House applied substantial pressure in support of the bill. The 13-vote margin of victory over the 40 votes needed to prevent cloture “shows that another 13 Senators realized the better [political] option was to vote no.”
Senate staff emphasizes that things might have turned out differently: “Getting the story [of what was in the bill] out there was so important. In twenty-first century America, it is possible to hold representatives accountable when the public cares.” One staffer adds: “The role of the blogosphere has to be commended for the record. Because of the blogosphere, so many Americans were educated on the contents of the bill, even if everything was not entirely accurate. The increased availability of information prevented the bill from being shoved down our throats.” I would add only that the role of talk radio — Hugh, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh — was at least equally critical. In allowing us to see with our own eyes the demerits of the bill under artificially created circumstances of expedition and haste, the role of the blogosphere was indeed worthy of note.
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