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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

He called the bill a "plea bargain" with people in the US illegally, "giving them a chance to come out of the shadows." At the same time, he said, the bill includes fines and a waiting period for citizenship that can be as long as 18 years. Though fellow South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) is threatening a filibuster, Graham predicted the bill would clear this week, with changes.

Graham "believes in the silent majority that understands the current system is chaos," says spokesman Kevin Bishop.South Carolina agribusiness stands behind Graham, says Farm Bureau representative Thompson Smith. Mr. Smith calls Graham "a great statesman in the tradition of John Calhoun," willing to rise above popular opinion to make unpopular, but correct, decisions.But some at the farmer's market vented open disgust, though not at Graham personally. Any shade of "amnesty" is unacceptable, says Patricia Johnson, a Greenville beautician shopping for flowers. "This isn't the Lindsey Graham that I voted for," she says.

If South Carolina represents the "new" border for illegal immigrants, Arizona is the "old" border, a Latino-infused state with a heavy flow of illegal immigrants and a widespread perception among voters that little is being done, especially at the federal level, to halt them.

Voters in the state last November overwhelmingly approved several ballot initiatives targeting illegal immigrants. Over the past four years polls have shown that far more Arizonans than not want the government to crack down on illegal immigrants. "No matter how I've asked the question – I could make up a program that said that any illegal immigrant that comes across ... should be put in chains, have no rights, be locked in solitary confinement – 65 percent of the people in Arizona would agree with that because they are really frustrated," says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and pollster at Arizona State University in Tempe. "People in Arizona don't think anybody's done anything" about the immigration problem. Many Arizonans now see Kyl as having flipped on illegal immigration, he says.

The only real public support Kyl has received so far has come from Arizona's Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who wrote an op-ed calling the legislation a good start. Democratic lawmakers, for their part, are also feeling the heat. Illegal immigration "is a complex problem – it cuts at our core values of what it means to be American, part of which is being fair and at the same time not getting a free ride," says US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, who has held constituent meetings throughout her 9,000-square-mile district that includes the busy border crossing at Douglas.

At the moment, though, it's Republicans, by and large, who are livid over the bill. "I feel violated," says state Rep. Russell Pearce, a long-time Kyl supporter. "This bill is a sellout of America."Such rhetoric may explain why Kyl's schedule last week was so low-key. Except for an op-ed piece that appeared in the Arizona Republic, stating that he'd rather be involved in fixing major flaws in the legislation than be sitting on the sidelines, Kyl held meetings with party officials that were "private in nature," according to a staff member. State party officials "have lots of questions, but they've largely been more receptive to the bill now than many were when the bill was first announced," says Ryan Patmintra, Kyl's press secretary.Kyl, who just won reelection and won't run again until 2012, may have less to lose than Graham does. Semiretired machinist Bob Glidden, for one, says he'll devote all his free time to ousting Graham. Like many conservatives, Mr. Glidden sees the bill and the run-up to the 2008 election as deciding moments in the course of American history. "He's going to be one of the ones who put our country at risk and ruined this state," he says. The high emotions surrounding the immigration bill could well have political repercussions for senators who, trying to do what they think is right, go against the wishes of their constituents, say political analysts. "Lindsey Graham is a survivor," says Towery, the Atlanta pollster. "But for every one of these senators ... this is a very dangerous piece of legislation."

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