Immigration used as test of bipartisanship
Democrats tell voters about GOP gridlock
The Senate’s immigration bill is dead on Capitol Hill, but it lives on in campaigns across the country, where Democrats call it a key litmus test of Republicans’ bipartisan credentials.
From Georgia to Iowa and Alaska, Democrats are turning the immigration debate from a question of legalization and amnesty into a debate over willingness to cross party lines on tough issues — and say Republican candidates who oppose the Senate bill have shown they can’t be trusted to work in a bipartisan manner.
“With disgust at Washington at an all-time high, or low, depending on how you look at it, I think it makes sense for Democrats to remind voters as much as possible that if the Republican Party wasn’t dominated by a bunch of extremists, Congress could do much more to help address the problems facing the country,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist.
In Georgia, Michelle Nunn has tried to do just that in her face-toface showdowns with businessman David Perdue, a Republican who said he would have voted against the Senate immigration bill.
Ms. Nunn touts her support of the “bipartisan comprehensive legislation” as proof that she is more interested solving problems than toeing a party line.
“This is probably one of the sharper contrasts that you will find between David and myself,” Ms. Nunn said in a candidates forum. “I think David embraces what I believe is the attitude of gridlock in Washington that has not enabled us to get this done.”
Weeks before Election Day, Democrats are relying on that same message in hopes of defending the Senate.
“The reference to bipartisanship, I think, is both an attempt to encourage Hispanic turnout and it is an attempt to reach independents,” said Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University.
Mr. Goldford said part of that argument is particularly true in Iowa because independents outnumber Democrats and Republicans.
The issue surfaced in the first Senate debate in Iowa, where Rep. Bruce L. Braley, a Democrat, questioned whether state Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, would have joined the Republican architects of the bill.
“The Braley campaign has contrasted Braley’s bipartisan accomplishments against Ernst’s obstructionism,” said Jeff Link, who is advising the Braley camp. “This is another issues where that frame works.”
Republicans, though, say it is Democrats who would add to the polarization because they would be a rubber stamp for President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
“I don’t know about y’all, but I am getting a little bored hearing this, ‘I am going to work across the aisle,’ when nobody on the Democratic side has decided they want to work across the aisle with Republicans in the United States Senate,” Mr. Perdue said this week in a debate, before tying Ms. Nunn to Mr. Obama. “You say you want to be a team builder, a conciliator, but you will not bite the hand that feeds you.”
Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist, said Democrats are shuffling away from Mr. Obama.
“They are looking for any way out from getting slammed as being a pack mule for President Obama’s policies,” Mr. O’Connell said.
Christy Seltzer said Democrats — especially those in red states — are trying to perform a “delicate two-step” of assuring independent voters that they are willing to work across party lines and reassuring their base that they are “one of them.”
“But on the immigration issue in states with a high percentage of Latino voters, that calculus changes — promoting your bipartisanship when the other side considers immigrants as criminals, to me, doesn’t seem like a winning strategy,” she said.
The 2013 immigration bill marked one of the high points of bipartisanship in the Senate.
The bill was drafted by a bipartisan “Group of Eight” senators with four Republicans — John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida — and four Democrats — Charles E. Schumer of New York, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Michael F. Bennet of Colorado and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
When it was introduced, Mr. Rubio, who has since walked away from the bill and is eying a presidential run, lamented at a press conference that it was “tragic that a nation of immigrants remains divided on the issue of immigration.”
The bill went on to pass the Senate, with 14 Republicans joining every member of the Democratic caucus.
But the momentum faded in the House, where Republican leaders refused to act on a similar proposal. That drew fierce opposition from tea partyers and conservatives inside and outside Congress.
Good will has evaporated even among Republicans. Mr. Graham said Mr. Rubio’s reluctance to stick by the bill shows he is too green to be president.
“He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him — we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” Mr. Graham told The Weekly Standard. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”
The focus of the debate on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, has shifted to the unaccompanied children who have been pouring into the country, as well as growing concerns — particularly in Republican circles — about whether Mr. Obama will unilaterally grant “amnesty” to more illegal immigrants after the election and whether terrorists are slipping into the country undetected along the nation’s porous border.
But on the campaign trail, Democrats have been busy talking about the Senate immigration bill and rattling off names of Republicans who they said stood shoulder to shoulder in the fight.
Sen. Kay R. Hagan, North Carolina Democrat, reminded voters in a debate this week with state House Speaker Thom Tillis that she stood with Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham to support the “bipartisan” bill.
Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska questioned how his challenger, state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, would not get behind a bill that received the support of Mr. Rubio, as well as Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
“This is the kind of legislation that my opponent says never happens,” Mr. Begich said. “Republicans working with Democrats found common ground.”
In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat, took aim at Republican Rep. Cory Gardner’s opposition to the bill.
“There is sitting in the House of Representatives a comprehensive immigration bill reform package that passed with almost 70 votes in the United States Senate. It has bipartisan support,” Mr. Udall said in a debate with Mr. Gardner.
“Congressman Gardner says he believes in immigration reform, but he hasn’t lifted a finger to move it in the House of Representatives,” Mr. Udall said.
Mr. Graham, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Susan M. Collins of Maine are the only three senators up for re-election who supported the bill. They now appear to be cruising to victory.