WASHINGTON -- As a junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama played only a minor role in the 2007 battle for immigration reform, but the experience informs his approach to the current debate and casts a light on just how complex an issue it is politically. Business community lobbyists who watched Obama work at the time recall a man pulled in a multitude of directions. As a budding presidential candidate, he had an incentive to get involved in the process, but no obvious incentive to see a bill pass with overly harsh provisions that could anger labor unions and some in the Latino community.
Today, Republicans are working to characterize President Obama's role in the last debate as unhelpful, laying the groundwork for the inevitable blame game to follow if the immigration effort fails this time around as well.
The 2007 compromise was ushered by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who teamed up to beat back amendments they considered "poison pills" -- provisions that, however worthy on their own, would upset a delicate balance and break the coalition apart.
"Barack Obama played virtually no role in the negotiations," Kyl recalled to HuffPost, noting that there was one exception. During one meeting Kyl remembers Obama attending, Kyl said Obama pushed for a change to the employer verification process. Under the bill as agreed upon by Kennedy and Kyl, if an employee was not found in a database of those legally authorized to work, he or she would be terminated. Obama argued that the worker should be allowed to remain on the payroll as long as the appeals process was underway, arguing that the database would necessarily include a certain number of errors. Obama and the labor unions who backed the change prevailed. The bill was not derailed as a result, Kyl said, because Kennedy promised him the measure would be stripped before it was signed into law.
The fight for immigration reform was one of Kennedy's last great battles on the Senate floor. Below is the final speech that Kennedy delivered just before a crucial vote:
Obama did, however, vote at least five times against Kennedy on amendments, one of which passed and has been partly blamed by the bill's backers, including Kyl, for the overall bill's demise.
The counterfactual question of whether it could have passed without those amendments must take into account the broad opposition from within the Republican ranks to anything related to so-called amnesty. Ultimately, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voted against the package, raising the question of whether any bill would have been good enough.
Six years removed from the debate, it's difficult to get a firm sense of exactly how Obama's role at the time was perceived, but in the case of the immigration debate, a meticulously thorough insider account exists in the form of the documentary "Last Best Chance," by filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Carmerini, who had extremely intimate and unique access to all of the major players both on and off the Hill.
Obama rarely appears in the film, but in one key scene, a group of business community lobbyists reacts to the breaking news that Obama will support a poison pill amendment from former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). One of them sums up the reaction: "'Presidential candidate kills immigration bill' -- there's a headline for you," says Craig Silvertooth, in response to the news that Obama will vote for an amendment that the GOP and its business allies say destroys the compromise. Silvertooth was part of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an offshoot of the Chamber of Commerce.
"Last Best Chance" aired on HBO as "The Senators' Bargain" and captures the critical moment:
Dorgan says today that it's unfair to consider his amendment a deal-breaker. "I know the supporters called my amendment a poison pill, and it's because they were worried about losing the Chamber of Commerce support," he told HuffPost. "It's always the case that when an agreement is reached, those who reached the agreement are determined to prevent it from being amended, so they call every amendment a killer. They always claim it is like a loose thread on a cheap suit -- pull the thread and the arm falls off."
The Dorgan amendment referenced in that scene passed 49-48, with Obama voting for it and Kennedy against.
Obama also cosponsored a key amendment that greatly weakened the employee verification process, along with Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). The Baucus-Grassley-Obama measure was considered a major threat by the Kennedy-Kyl coalition, and a GOP lobbyist who worked on it recalled that she expected it to pass if it got a vote. It never came up because the previous amendment, the one sponsored by Dorgan, did pass, and because of a complicated parliamentary procedure known as the "clay pigeon," Dorgan's passage was followed by a vote on cloture instead of on the remaining amendments.
Obama defended his employment verification position from the Senate floor in 2007, as captured here by C-SPAN:
The final vote, though, showed that, despite how far the bill had gone in the direction of the GOP position, Republicans weren't ready for immigration reform. As votes on the critical cloture vote were cast -- presided over by Obama, coincidentally -- advocates of reform watched from their offices.
"That's the whole thing," says one in the film as McConnell casts his critical no vote. Republicans voted against by a margin of 37-12.
"This is about as right-leaning a bill that's conceivable. It just shows that the party is in the grip of the nativists in a way that it wasn't," says another. The documentary crew was there to capture the reactions in real time:
Kyl, meanwhile, said that his experience heading the '07 negotiations has left him concerned that today's Congress won't be able to come to agreement. He said that despite the progress he and Kennedy made, major issues remained largely unresolved.
"It's easy to say, 'You have to go to the back of the line,'" Kyl said, but the line is so long for some nationalities with limited quotas that it becomes impractical. "For Mexicans and El Salvadorans, which are a large part of what we're talking about, they'd be dead by the time they got in," Kyl said. To manage that problem, he had agreed to allow the millions at the front of the line to be expedited, but that would then cause its own problems, including a massive influx of new immigrants who would need to be assimilated and absorbed into the labor market, he noted. How to resolve that conflict, he said, was never resolved.
Nor, he said, were the critical details of the guest worker program, a major element of any comprehensive package. Kyl said that no agreement could be reached as to who would be considered a guest worker, what the levels would be, how they would respond to economic conditions and which federal agency would oversee the program.