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Did Obama Really Torpedo Immigration Reform?

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Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain made a curious charge through a spokesperson immediately after his talk before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference in Arlington, Virginia. He flatly said that his Democratic rival Barack Obama helped torpedo the immigration reform bill in the Senate in June 2007. This is a serious even inflammatory charge. It probably won't do much to hurt Obama's standing among the majority of Latino elected officials and core Latino Democrats. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of them back him. But it could stir more murmurs among some about his credentials as the change advocate on economic and foreign policy matters, and that includes immigration reform. Worse, it could raise even more doubts among rank and file Latino voters about Obama's willingness to go to the mat on immigration reform. This would be a disaster for him. Latino voter support is absolutely crucial in Obama's drive to bag the White House.

In the 2004 presidential election, Bush got nearly forty percent of the Latino vote. Without those votes Democrat John Kerry would have won the White House.

It not just the Latino votes that Bush got and Obama and McCain are clawing to get. It's where the Latino votes come from that could cinch the victory for Obama or McCain. The greatest numbers of Latino voters are in California, Florida, Texas and New York, Illinois and New Jersey. These are the key electoral states that virtually determine who will sit in the White House for years to come.

This much is clear in looking back at the Senate immigration debate in the spring 2007, Obama did vote for five amendments dubbed "poison pill" amendments. They badly threw out of whack the carefully crafted, but always fragile, compromise package that Democrats and Republicans cobbled together to get a bill passed. The Amendments lowered the visa quota for guest workers, put a severe time limit on the temporary guest worker program, and the temporary worker visa programs, revised the system for evaluating immigrant citizenship claims, and changed the time limit on the renewal of visas for some immigrants.

The amendments were backed by liberal and labor groups. The intent was to make the bill more expansive, balanced, and fair. But it was also the classic case of noble intent clashing with political practicality and a very tenuous Senate Democrat and Republican consensus on the type of immigration reform bill that realistically could pass, and that Bush would sign. The amendments predictably were rejected. Both Senator Ted Kennedy and McCain turned thumbs down on them (McCain did not vote on one of the amendments). The time delay, energy expended and wasted debating the amendments (and others), upset the delicate balance and helped dig the hole deeper for the bill.

Though Hillary Clinton and other top Senate Democrats also backed the amendments, they didn't draw much fire for it. They are hard line partisan Democrats who make little pretense about voting anything other than a straight party line on legislation or amendments to legislation that labor and liberal advocacy groups solidly back.

But Obama claimed to be different than them. The amendment debacle drew a mild knock that Obama had betrayed his oft stated promise to elevate his head above petty, narrow party politics and be a bi-partisan consensus builder. This means that he will be the one to smash through the dead end morass of party squabbling and Congressional paralysis to move things along in Washington. The paralysis has drawn the disgust and fury of millions of voters and earned Congress approval ratings that wallow every bit in the historic low depths as Bush's approval ratings

The immigration reform bill killing amendments, and Obama's vote on them, give McCain the hook he needs to lambaste Obama as an immigration reform spoiler. Worse, it allows him to try to plant the idea among some Latino voters that if Obama can't be trusted to do what it takes to get immigration reform through, than why expect him to do what it takes on other issues such as affordable health care that are vital to Latinos.

Though the crowd at the NALEO conference publicly and enthusiastically chanted Obama's name, privately he had a nervous moment. In a behind the scenes meeting with more than a dozen Latino leaders he reportedly was pressed to spell out exactly where he stood on immigration. Some also weren't too thrilled that in the past Obama sounded every bit as tough as the anti-immigration hawks in backing a border fence. Immigration reform advocates vehemently oppose the fence.

Despite the vigorous cheers among Latino elected officials for Obama and the near certainty that he'll net the big percentage of Latino votes, it still doesn't mean that the Latino vote is not a bit of an X factor for him. Unfortunately, it won't help that Obama now will be called to answer for what he did or didn't do when it came to help make immigration reform a reality.

New America Media National Political Affairs Writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).