Trent Lott doesn't usually answer his Senate phone himself, but when angry callers are burning up the lines – as they are over this week's debate about revising America's immigration laws – the Republicans' No. 2 Senate leader has picked up to hear what they've got to say.
A lot of the talk is misinformation, he says. Talk radio and the blogs were blasting the compromise bill, which includes a guest-worker program and a path to legal status for many of the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the US, well before the text of the bill was ready for senators on Tuesday.
"We talked for 15 minutes," says the senator, recounting one call. "I can't talk to everyone in America for 15 minutes.... But if you cower in the shadows, you'll get pummeled.... You've got to stand up."
Withering attacks on the bill aren't only by phone: Deal-busting amendments are surfacing on the Senate floor. By week's end, the bill's defenders expect to have an idea of whether their "grand bargain" will hold – and then they'll head home on Memorial Day break to meet the backlash face to face.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid had planned to wrap up the immigration debate before this week's break. But he delayed the start of the debate until this week, after negotiators, led by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, said they were "80 percent of the way" to a bipartisan deal on immigration. That put off the final vote on the issue until senators return to Washington the first week of June.
Critics of the legislation, who cross the political spectrum, plan to use next week to turn up the pressure on senators at home.
"People are going to be piling on their senators at public events, media events, and in their offices over the break," predicts William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, based in Raleigh, N.C. "They can expect large angry mobs of their constituents. I've never seen this degree of disparity between lawmaker actions and the electorate."
Nearly half of US voters oppose the proposed reform, and only 26 percent of US voters support it, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll this week.
Boos for two backers of the bill
Last weekend, two senators who helped negotiate the bill were booed at their respective state Republican conventions. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was shouted down when he called the reform "the best bill I think we can get to President Bush."
In Duluth, Ga., Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia was booed when he said the nation needs a "meaningful guest-worker program."
Aides to both senators note that the lawmakers also drew applause at other points in their speeches. Most of the "grand bargainers" will not be up for reelection again until 2012, but Senators Graham and Chambliss both face the voters in 2008.
"The case he's been making to folks is: I haven't committed to supporting this bill, if it doesn't meet my criteria in the end. Most significant is border security first," says Lindsay Mabry, a spokeswoman for Chambliss. "It's a very emotional and complex issue, so it's understandable what the reaction would be. But when the senator gets out there explaining why we need immigration reform now, people are starting to understand."
Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina says he's "never seen [his] constituents so angry and emotional." His opposition to the bill was cheered by those at the GOP convention in his home state. His office has received more than 2,000 phone calls on the bill, most opposing it. "People pulled me aside [at the convention] and told me to fight it," he says.
Freshman Sen. Jon Tester (D) of Montana says his office has been overwhelmed with calls from constituents "opposing amnesty." "I'll be meeting with them all next week," he says.
Calls and e-mails are mostly negative
Senators interviewed for this story say that their calls and e-mails have been running overwhelmingly negative on the bill but that they're just beginning to answer critics.
"We need time to show people what's in this package," says Lott, who was not one of the negotiators but who joined the effort to sell the bill this week.
The Mississippi senator urges his colleagues to take three questions home to voters this week: Is the current immigration situation intolerable? Is the bill before the Senate significantly better than the current situation? The answer to both questions is yes, he says.
His final question is this: Will more time make a better bill? With next year's election results uncertain for Republicans, the answer is "clearly no," says Lott.
"This," he says, "is our last best chance to make a significant improvement in our immigration laws."