Reid Sees Votes in Immigration

Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:38pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may not have a chance of passing an immigration reform bill next year, but that’s not going to stop him from keeping the contentious issue on the chamber’s front burner as he tries to rally Hispanic voters behind what’s likely to be a brutal bid for a fifth term.

Reid has repeatedly said that enacting comprehensive immigration reform is one of his top priorities and at one point even suggested the issue could be tackled in 2009. Although little movement has been made so far, those close to the Majority Leader say he will use his powerful perch in the months ahead to continue championing the issue and talking about the need to get reform enacted as he heads into next November.

Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said Friday that Reid remains committed to passing legislation during this Congress. “Sen. Reid has been publicly vocal for some time that an immigration overhaul that is tough and fair, secures our borders, and brings undocumented people out of the shadows is a top priority. It’s good for Nevada, and it’s good for this country,— Mollineau said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said that while Senators recognize they have a responsibility to address the issue at some point, he isn’t sure “there’s broad Senate-wide appetite to take it on next year.—

At the same time, however, Whitehouse said there are some indications that Democratic leaders may be serious about moving the issue forward in 2010. He pointed to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who as the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security has made comprehensive reform a near-term priority. Reid separately tapped Schumer, the Conference vice chairman and a loyal lieutenant, to spearhead the issue in the Senate.

“That’s a very significant step because Chuck is an unusually energetic and bold legislator,— Whitehouse said of Schumer’s role on the Judiciary Committee. “He can see a way to get things done before other people can.—

“With proper leadership, if folks are shown a way, it’s much more appealing,— Whitehouse added.

Indeed, Schumer continues to hold ongoing talks with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on a potential compromise bill, and GOP aides said Friday that he has reached out to several other Republicans in the past several weeks. However, those efforts to find broader buy-in from Republicans have been unsuccessful thus far — and the fact that the health care debate has dragged on this long has pushed back Schumer and Graham’s timeline.

While the pair had originally hoped to have legislation ready by early next year, it now appears that the earliest a comprehensive package will be made public is in early spring, Democratic aides said.

And even if those efforts are successful, it is far from certain that Reid will be able to bring it to the floor. With a forthcoming war supplemental, jobs legislation, financial regulatory reform and possibly a climate change bill all on deck, immigration reform may ultimately be crowded out.

But those close to Reid said that regardless of whether he has a realistic chance of moving a bill, he still plans to make immigration a high-profile issue. While Reid has had a long history of supporting immigration reform, it has become an even higher priority — thanks to the growth of the Hispanic vote in Nevada.

“This is an issue Reid has believed in for years … even before political advantageousness became involved,— said Andres Ramirez, senior vice president and director of hispanic programs at the New Democrat Network. Ramirez, who worked on immigration issues for several years in Reid’s office, argued that while Reid’s interest in immigration reform may have actually hurt him in previous elections, the changing face of Nevada has turned the issue into a critical one for the Democratic leader.

With abysmal public polling numbers, Reid’s re-election is far from secure. Former GOP state Chairwoman Sue Lowden and attorney Danny Tarkanian are the leading candidates to unseat him.

“Certainly, yes, there is a lot of benefit that will help him with the Hispanic electorate in Nevada,— Ramirez said.

Ramirez pointed out that over the past three electoral cycles, Hispanic registration and voter turnout have continued to rise. In fact, the Latinos, who make up 13 percent of the state’s population, accounted for 15 percent of the voters in the 2008 election, in part because immigration reform sparked their interest in political participation.

“Immigration is somewhat of a litmus test issue— for Hispanic voters who may not otherwise decide to vote, Ramirez said.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum, said a highly energized base of reform advocates will help make the case that immigration is a winning issue for politically vulnerable lawmakers, Reid included.

“Sen. Reid has been great on this issue for years, and looking at his re-election and the strength of his party, you see the incentive,— he said.

Reid’s calculus is also shaping expectations in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has put her leadership team on notice that House action on a bill is likely next year, given her belief that the Senate will move first.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who takes the lead on the issue for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he plans to drop a comprehensive immigration reform package in the next two weeks that will set a liberal standard in the debate. But he said the Senate needs to go first, and he thinks it will. “Why would we want to foster a sense of hope when we well know that without any action from the Senate, our actions here would be futile?— he said. “Let us first go where there is difficulty.—

The issue came to a head in the House last month during last-minute wrangling over how a sweeping health care overhaul would treat undocumented workers. Members of the CHC threatened to vote down the measure if leaders added hard-line Senate language banning illegal immigrants from buying their own coverage through new health insurance exchanges. Democrats decided against the tougher approach, then dodged a bullet on the floor when Republicans opted not to force a vote on it.

House Democrats will likely have to swallow stricter Senate language in conference negotiations. But Pelosi has privately argued that a broader immigration reform bill will largely render the provision moot by giving legal status to those it targets.

But moderate Democrats in the House do not seem inclined to take up the difficult issue. With the economy still sputtering and a challenging midterm election around the corner, aides to several centrists said taking another tough vote on such a divisive issue would amount to political suicide — even if the Senate manages to pass a bill first.

“If we’re dumb enough to put immigration on the floor next year, I’m calling a headhunter,— one senior Democratic aide said.

A senior GOP aide in the Senate also argued that despite his rhetoric, Reid, too, may find immigration unpalatable for his vulnerable Members after this year’s contentious health care reform fight.

“It would be awful for him because he’s already making his moderates take tough votes on health care,— the aide said.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) agreed, saying that while Reid may want to “talk— about doing immigration reform, the political risks for his incumbents may be too high.

“I have a hard time believing they’re going to want to add immigration on top of that when its potentially one of the most contentious issues you can deal with,— Cornyn said.

But Ramirez, who works in Nevada, said that in the end, Latinos in the state will be less concerned about whether he passes legislation next year and more interested in with whether Reid shows the courage to take it on.

“Voters in Nevada are going to look for his leadership on this issue. … [Reid] has to show that he is still with our community and supportive of this issue,— he said.

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.