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Red-state senators feel the heat of a fiery immigration debate

Two GOP lawmakers, South Carolina's Graham and Arizona's Kyl, take a calculated risk in backing the Senate bill.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2007


In South Carolina last week during the congressional break, Sen. Lindsey Graham generally avoided crowds. Likewise Sen. Jon Kyl, back home in Arizona, scheduled no public appearances, instead huddling with party officials in Phoenix.

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It could not have been an easy week for the two GOP senators, key brokers of the compromise immigration-reform bill that has infuriated so many of their red-state constituents. How well they and other senators in the hot seat endured the heat may become clear when the Senate resumes debate on the bill this week – and whether the amendments to come are designed mainly to alter it or, rather, to kill it.

The week at home made one thing evident: Senators who back this measure, especially Republicans, are taking a calculated risk.

To some, they are traitors and sellouts, offering "amnesty" to illegal immigrants who broke the law by crossing into the US. Angry constituents promise repercussions at the ballot box, and political analysts say those are not empty threats.

"Among a lot of Republicans, there's been intensely negative reaction directed against the Republican senators who have been involved with [the bill]," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and coauthor of the book "Divided America." Though the Republican senators "are saying that they're actually responsible for most of the conservative parts of the bill, they're not seen that way by their supporters."

To others, Senators Graham, Kyl, and others who've endeavored to repair a broken immigration system are the statesmen of this age – 21st-century John Calhouns determined to forge ahead on resolving a tough issue that, if not as divisive as slavery was 150 years ago, may at least match the fight over abortion for intensity.

President Bush, who Friday defended the immigration bill, urged senators to hold firm in the face of opposition. "No matter how difficult it may seem for some politically," he told a group of overhaul supporters, "I strongly believe it's in this nation's interest for people here in Washington to show courage and resolve and pass a comprehensive immigration reform."

Though a New York Times/CBS poll showed that a majority of Americans support the different provisions of the bill – among them a guest-worker program, legalization for illegal immigrants, and a more secure border – discontent stretched from Greenville, S.C., to Phoenix.

Brett Mecum, spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party, says that from May 21 through May 25 his office received 1,600 calls from Republicans threatening to tear up their membership cards and join other parties. In 12 years in the business, says Mr. Mecum, he's "never seen people try to walk away from the party, this irate over one single issue, as last week here." That volume of calls led Randy Pullen, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, to call a press conference to say that the Arizona GOP opposes the proposed law.

"Our research shows that [Kyl and Graham] are delusional if they think that the Republican base, the conservative base, is happy with that bill," says Matt Towery, CEO of Insider Advantage, a nonpartisan polling firm in Atlanta. "I think they're trying to talk themselves into believing that, but it's not working."Adds Mr. Towery, "Will certain Republicans lose a percentage of their core base over this? At least temporarily, yes. Will it make them more vulnerable? Yes."

So why are they doing it?

Graham, for one, seems to take pride on breaking deadlocks in Congress. He earlier joined 14 senators who angered part of the GOP base by breaking a stalemate over appointments to judgeships.

Graham votes the conservative position about 90 percent of the time. But, up for reelection in 2008, he's taking a "big political risk" by bucking his supporters on this issue, says Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report in Washington.

At an appearance Friday at a farmer's market where bused-in supporters outnumbered actual voters, Graham acknowledged the bill is "an emotional issue," but added, "If you say no and walk away, you're putting the country at risk."