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Obama's immigration plan a 'poison pill' for Congress

Lawmakers have proved reluctant to touch the topic because it can burn them in primary season.

By Staff writer / April 10, 2009

Dividing line: A US Border Patrol agent walks along a section of the US-Mexico border fence near Sunland Park, N.M. President Obama's efforts to reform how America treats immigrants who have come to the country illegally could cause problems for members of Congress.

Tom Pennington/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

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Washington

President Obama’s plan to start work on immigration reform – reaffirmed by White House staff this week – launched two sharply different views on how it will impact his domestic agenda.

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Supporters applaud Mr. Obama's holistic approach, arguing that all the interrelated issues of the economy, healthcare, and homeland security must be dealt with together. But to others, immigration reform is one of the most divisive issues in American politics – a "poison pill" that could sour the mood in Congress and clip the president's momentum.

By adding it to his "to do" list, Obama is putting lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in a bind, forcing them into votes that can then be wielded against them on the campaign trail.

"Democrats have to worry about offending Latino voters – that would create problems in primaries," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Republicans have to deal with the enforcement-only folks, also in primaries.”

The last bid for comprehensive reform legislation derailed in the Senate in June 2007. Republicans who were willing to support then-President Bush on immigration aren’t as likely to take political risks for a Democratic president.

“If Republicans have learned nothing else, it’s that their primary electorates don’t look kindly on anything that looks like amnesty,” says Mr. Pitney.

The immigration issue poses special problems for each party. Since 2007, elements of the issue have come back as amendments to certain bills working their way through Congress. Members of Congress have called them “poison pills,” because they aim to force legislators to record their votes on divisive issues.

In one instance earlier this year, the Senate voted to kill an amendment supported by groups who want tighter controls on immigration. It would have extended for six years a voluntary, Internet-based program that aims to determine if employees are legally entitled to work in the United States.

Though the amendment failed, the last-minute vote changes and intense discussions in the well of the Senate signaled how tough a call it was for Democrats in conservative states – who may have seen the vote coming back to hurt them in opponents' campaign ads. In the end, seven Democrats voted with a united GOP caucus to back the amendment, which lost narrowly, 50-47.