News & Politics

Rushing to Reform

Bill Frist's presidential posturing threatens to undermine our national immigration debate.
It's a rare thing to see Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) all angry at the same thing. It's even more rare whenthat thing is Bill Frist.

Yet so it went on Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the Senators haggled over -- and ultimately passed -- a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would grant the 11 million people living here illegally a path to citizenship through a temporary worker program, and provide some 400 thousand new green cards annually for foreigners wishing to immigrate.

It was clear from the get-go that it would be a tense day in the committee. "I read in the morning papers that we are under a lot of pressure," said Specter. "You may have missed the papers, but you won't miss the pressure."

That pressure was a gift from Frist himself, who as Senate Majority leader set an immutable March 27th deadline for the Senate panel to release an immigration proposal. Had the committee failed to finish on time, Frist would have filled the immigration slot with his own enforcement-only bill on the Senate floor this week, a major setback for those favoring comprehensive reform. Frist's bill would beef up the borders while ignoring a guest worker strategy and allowing local police to enforce immigration law. It's a blatant play to his far-right constituency, as was his insistence on driving the Judiciary Committee with the zeal of a juiced up cowboy. But the committee could not help but take heed; as Specter put it, "its either his bill or ours."

Thankfully, as it stands now, Frist will likely allow Specter to substitute the committee bill for his own on the floor this week. But that doesn't mean that the Tennessee Senator's election year posturing hasn't already affected the contents of the Judiciary Committee proposal.

Because of Frist's strict deadline, the Senators had roughly seven hours on Monday to finish cobbling together a proposal from the bodies of three separate immigration bills: McCain-Kennedy, Cornyn-Kyl and Specter's version, the so-called "Chairman's Mark." The bill they assembled was an eight-section document that dealt with vital economic and national security issues, and it represented the first comprehensive Senate effort on immigration reform since 1986. But as the day wore on, it became clear that legislative work under the gun yields not good results, but sloppy policy.

Specter's mind, through much of the day, seemed more focused on the clock than the proposal at hand. When Feinstein introduced an amendment to address the displacement of U.S. citizens by foreign students in public universities, Specter cut her off. "So you want to raise the fees for foreign students? I'll agree to that, if it will limit debate." Votes were cast, and a provision to raise the application fee by $1000 was promptly inserted.

On another occasion, an amendment by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to increase the annual disbursement of H1-B visas for highly skilled workers was passed amid a flurry of confusion. Grassley threw out a seemingly arbitrary figure for the proper quota -- 200,000 -- but said he would be willing to negotiate. Minutes later, after some ambiguous calculations by Specter's staff, the Chairman suggested 220,000, and abruptly staged a vote. "All in favor of Grassley's Amendment..." he said, prompting Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to ask, "Does anyone know what it was?"

The groups that seemed most impacted by the committee's policy-as-roulette approach were foreign students and highly skilled workers, but the ripple effects didn't stop there. Senator Jeff Sessions came to one section of the legislation armed with 11 amendments on issues from border technology to a potential study analyzing the impacts of the ultimate Senate bill. After being rebuffed by Specter's repeated insistence that he "save it for the floor," a disgruntled Sessions resorted to pulling out a series of apocalyptic bar graphs that would have made disciples of The Population Bomb smile. He muttered some fuzzy math figures about how immigrants would strain our infrastructure, and ultimately opted to skip out early on the hearing.

This sort of broad strokes, rushed policymaking does a disservice to the people that the Senate purports to serve. Its not that every inch of a bill should be hammered out in committee; as Specter repeatedly said, much of that will happen on the Senate floor. But with issues as vital as the future legal status of 11 million people at hand, a measured and thorough debate is the only route worth taking.

With Judiciary Committee bill hits the Senate floor this week, Frist is unlikely to crack the whip with the same enthusiasm that he has until now. The 12-6 Judiciary Committee vote was a sound, bi-partisan rejection of the "hold-the-line" immigration philosophy that Frist's legislation expresses. In addition to the guest worker program and the increase in green cards, the committee bill would exempt those offering humanitarian aid to immigrants from prosecution, allow temporary workers to apply for legal status without leaving the United States, and create and authorize the creation of an agriculture-specific guest worker program for 1.5 million undocumented laborers.

The bill would also address border security, by adding some 12,000 full time border patrol agents over a five-year period and phasing in a national database to cross-check the employment status of guest workers. But the employment provisions reek of something that many conservative politicians have come to loathe: amnesty. So long as the Judiciary Committee legislation provides legal recognition and eventual citizenship for some workers, it is not likely to be a Frist-friendly bill, and debate over it will be contentious.

But by virtue of his position, Frist still wields considerable power over the sort of bill that will ultimately pass the Senate. Should he continue to put concerns about the 2008 election above a desire for sensible immigration policy, it will undermine the legislative process. Instead, Frist should heed the words of fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who have indicated that compromise is possible. An enforcement-only immigration bill is off the table, and should the majority leader fail to recognize this, we're likely to hear more bi-partisan Frist-bashing in the style that we witnessed on Monday.

"I oppose this forced march," said Feinstein around noon, as Frist's deadline loomed over the committee. "We are meant, whether we like it or not, to be a deliberative body."

Amid murmurs of agreement, Specter then quipped, "I'd like Senator Feinstein's remarks forwarded to the Majority Leader as promptly as possible."
Nelson Harvey is an intern at The American Prospect.