Not Dead Yet

A week after the collapse of the comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate, members of the U. S. Congress were still fielding existential questions about whether the body serves any purpose at all. In advance of the vote, Senate GOP Whip Trent Lott had summed up one side of the argument -- and anticipated the overwhelming sense of frustration that would follow the bill's collapse -- by declaring: "We're going to do this damned thing, and if we don't, I think we should dissolve the Congress and just go home."

If our lawmakers can't address this big, important, urgent issue, goes the thinking, what's the point in having them around?

We may get some answer to that not-completely-rhetorical question sooner than we thought -- because the bill is back. A deal struck Thursday night revived it, and leaders say they will reconsider the bill when they are done with the energy bill now on the floor, maybe as soon as late next week. More likely it'll be the week after that, just before lawmakers leave for the July 4th break. The new deal call for the consideration of up to 11 amendments, which means that the three weeks before the Congress goes home for August could determine the fate of immigration reform for the duration of this Congress and maybe for years to come. It will also serve to define the Democratic majorities now in control on both sides.

Clearly, there are many stakeholders with lots to lose in this debate -- the president, sure, but also, of course, the illegal worker running food at a restaurant in some suburban mall in Ohio, or Nevada or Georgia this summer. But it will be most interesting to watch how the Senate handles this legislation when it get back to it, because this bill and this issue, more than most, may be exactly what the United States Senate was designed for – big, difficult problems, seemingly impossible to solve, requiring both big risks and great compromises. And not at all given to quick or decisive resolutions.

Indeed, what happened on immigration in the last few weeks is actually in keeping with the natural order of things in the Senate, which was designed not so much to act as to prevent precipitous action -- the easy and excessive legislating that Madison (probably) described as "the diseases to which our governments are most liable."

The No's almost always have the advantage in the Senate, unless the Aye's bring their A-game. But supporters of this particular piece of legislation represent a collection of some of the most skilled legislators from both parties in the Senate. They want to win, and they have the president on their side. That is not a recipe for defeat in this town, even in the Senate.

At the same time, our contentious times have produced a courage-resistant strain of mirco-politics that shuns big ideas and bold action. The significance of the stalled "Grand Bargain" is thus not so much that it failed, but that it was grand and ambitious enough to dislodge so many of the usual petty alliances in Washington.

Supportive GOP senators were the recipients of an impossible amount of grief for backing this bill. In the end, some, like Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who was among those who crafted the deal, were forced to run for cover. (Last week, Chambliss announced that while he was "committed to the concepts" in the legislation, "to say I support the bill, I've never said that.") Moreover, bill's failure threw into sharp relief exactly how divided the country is on this issue. Five of the nine new senators that put Democrats in the majority voted to move on the bill, while the four others voted to kill it.

So it can't really a be a shock that this bill didn't pass -- even if the Beltway press seemed to think so. The analysis of the failure has surpassed the usual simple-minded "who-won, who-lost" caricatures so endemic in Washington. The questions bandied about this week concern whether the failure to advance the immigration legislation is evidence of a systemic decline of our entire political system.

In fairly apocalyptic terms, The Washington Post all but likened the failure of the bill to the fall of the Roman republic. "The collapse of comprehensive immigration revision in the Senate last night represents a political defeat for President Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill's most prominent sponsors," the Post's Dan Balz wrote. "More significantly, it represents a scathing indictment of the political culture of Washington." Well, as is often said around this town, an indictment is not a conviction.

Immigration reform, when it comes, will change the way we live and the way we think of ourselves, in much the same way that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Missouri Compromise, or the Louisiana Purchase did. And it will take the Senate, where six-year terms and enormous individual leverage were combined with the intention of fostering political courage, to get us to that point.

The defeat of the immigration bill may indeed be evidence of what Henry Clay once called "triumph of ultraism and impracticability -- a triumph of a most extraordinary conjunction of extremes." But the odd collection of ideologies -- the Kennedy/Kyl spectrum -- that has gotten behind this legislation is greater evidence still of a deep understanding across the board that this issue may be worth rising above the intense hostilities of the moment in search of a real, if partial, solution. Clay, in his plea to the Senate for the for passage of the Missouri Compromise -- which all at once expanded the Union, sanctioned and preserved slavery, and delayed the Civil War -- warned his Senate about the perils of inaction. "Will you go home and leave all in disorder and confusion -- all unsettled-all open?" he demanded. "The contentions and agitations of the past will be increased and augmented by the agitations resulting from our neglect to decide them."

In other words: Next week, and next month, somebody better bring their A-game.

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