Why Democrats are pushing a series of bills doomed to fail

Democrats have put three hot-button issues atop their agenda this week – 'don't ask, don't tell,' immigration reform, and campaign finance reform. They likely won't pass a thing on any of them. But they aren't too worried by that.

Rick Sforza/The Sun/AP
Members of the Inland Empire Dream Team and San Bernardino for Reform stand on the steps of the San Bernardino, Calif., city hall on Sept. 12, during a rally to support the DREAM Act despite the bill's failure to pass the senate.

In the last days before the break for the Nov. 2 elections, why are Senate Democrats focusing their efforts on votes they are all but certain to lose?

On Tuesday, they fell three votes short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster on a defense spending bill, primarily because they attached two controversial amendments – one that would end "don't ask, don't tell" and a second that would offer a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

In the aftermath of that defeat, Senate Democrats are shifting back to the Disclose Act – a campaign finance reform bill that didn't attract a single Republican vote when it last came before the Senate on July 27.

It is not a theme necessarily aimed at legislative success.

"The only plausible answer is that this is symbolic politics aimed at sending messages to voters rather than legislating,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“In certain respects the legislation is secondary," he adds. "The problem is that the bill and the next one can backfire..., here with charges that Democrats are playing politics with defense. Also it does little for the main concern of voters – the economy.”

The three pieces of legislation all serve important political purposes:

• In the case of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, "Democrats want to energize their base – about 70 percent of the gay and lesbian vote is Democratic,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

• The DREAM Act, which would allow illegal immigrants who came to the US as children and are in college or the military the right to apply for citizenship, has been a priority for immigrant-rights activity, and Hispanics are a large Democratic constituency.

• “On the Disclose Act, Democrats have been going after Republicans on ethical issues in many parts of the country," says Mr. Sabato. "Democrats can portray this as a straight-up vote on clean politics, so it becomes an issue – something they can use to augment their attacks on Republicans for ethical breaches."

As a practical matter, the defense bill – as well as the proposed repeal of don't ask, don't tell and the DREAM Act – will likely be delayed until after the election. For both, it is a question of timing.

On don't ask, don't tell, Republicans are determined to wait until the Pentagon releases a survey of what its servicemen and women think about the policy before considering a repeal. The DREAM Act, meanwhile, appears to be a political nonstarter for Republicans – at least until after the Nov. 2 elections.

Senate Republicans on Tuesday proposed taking up the must-pass defense authorization bill again, but they demanded that immigration provisions not be among the first 20 amendments, because they are not related to defense issues. Democrats balked, noting that the DREAM Act is part of the Pentagon's strategic plan to maintaining a mission-ready, all-volunteer force.

Moreover, the act has had bipartisan support in the past, Rep. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said after the vote. “It is a matter of simple American justice, and I would hope that 11 Republicans who joined us last time will stop cowering in the shadows and come forward and join us in a bipartisan effort and not stop us procedurally from even debating and deliberating this critical issue,” he said.

The implication was that Republicans are loath to hand Democrats such a legislative victory – for one of their core constituencies – so close to the election.

But in a briefing with reporters after the vote, Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said Congress must demonstrate to the public that it is fixing border security before it eases immigration laws.

“What am I going to tell people in South Carolina when I legalize 2 million people because it sounds emotionally good when I have not secured the border?” said Senator Graham.

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