On the Democratic side, which faces a stiff headwind going into this fall’s 2010 elections, this hugely divisive issue does no favors to moderates in swing districts – many of whom are in tough reelection battles. Any legislation that promises a “pathway to citizenship” instantly becomes “amnesty” in Republican attack ads.
But on the plus side for Democrats, the issue has the potential to energize a key constituency – Hispanics – who have been lobbying for comprehensive reform for years.
The driving force behind the effort is Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who is one of, if not the, most endangered incumbents in the Senate. A couple of weeks ago, Senator Reid told Latinos – a large and growing voting bloc in his home state – that he wanted to move on immigration reform. And last Friday, when the governor of Arizona signed tough legislation that requires law enforcement to check the immigration papers of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, the issue came to the forefront.
For Republicans, the appearance of Democratic friendliness toward illegal immigrants presents the potential for short-term gains in an election year. But in the long term, the party’s apparent unwillingness to work toward compromise on the issue could harden the party’s image as anti-immigrant, and damage Republican efforts to woo Latino voters.
For now, though, some Democrats are frustrated by the timing of the effort in the Senate, which seems to have squelched climate change legislation that was supposed to be released on Monday.
“I get the political concern, I get Reid’s needing this,” says a Democratic strategist. “But you put this up there and lose? Does that help the cause? Does that make it easier in 2011?
In a letter to Senate leaders on Saturday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina called Reid’s shift toward immigration reform and away from climate legislation “a cynical political ploy.” Senator Graham was the only Republican senator working on both pieces of legislation, at a time when bipartisanship is scarce.
The group America’s Voice, which favors comprehensive immigration reform, surmises that Graham is pulling back on cooperation because he wants to save his friend Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona from having to vote on immigration reform in the heat of a tough primary battle. Senator McCain used to be a strong supporter of comprehensive reform, but he has pulled back from that position.
The Obama White House continues to support Graham. At his press briefing Monday, spokesman Robert Gibbs suggested that Graham pulled out of negotiations over climate change legislation because of pressure from within the Republican Party.
“I think Rahm has a good relationship with him,” Mr. Gibbs said, referring to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. “The president has a good relationship with him. Many folks here do.”
But Gibbs disagreed with Graham’s contention that pursuing immigration reform now would jeopardize climate change legislation.
President Obama’s political operation ramped up its push for the 2010 midterms Monday with a YouTube message to his supporters, calling on them to renew their activism – particularly in reaching out to Obama supporters who had voted for the first time in 2008.
Latino voters will be critical in the midterms, following Obama’s success in 2008 in getting 68 percent to vote for him. Young voters will also be critical, and the Democrats have their work cut out. A Gallup poll released on Monday showed that younger voters, another demographic that skewed Democratic two years ago, are less enthusiastic about voting in this year’s midterm than older voters.
The problem for Obama is that his name will not be on the ballot. So the Democratic National Committee and Obama’s political operation, Organizing for America, are trying to nationalize the election around the president.