THE BLOG

BREAKING: Senate Democrats Do Have Spines, After All

05/25/2011 02:15 pm ET
  • Frank Sharry Founder and executive director, America's Voice

A couple weeks ago, right after the “Joe Wilson” episode, it sure looked like Senators on both sides of the aisle were competing to see who could impose the harshest restrictions on immigrants in the health insurance reform bill – all at the taxpayer’s expense.

Anti-immigrant groups like FAIR, aided and abetted by pundits like CNN’s on-air immigrant-basher Lou Dobbs, and validated by rabble-rousing Congressmen like Joe Wilson, were trying to kill health care reform with their typical line that new benefits were going to be provided to undocumented immigrants. It wasn’t true— but, as it turns out, facts don’t often matter with this crowd.

But, a funny thing happened to the nativists’ agenda this week.

Although GOP Senators meticulously crafted a series of “get-tough” amendments designed to inflict maximum pain on immigrants and to make Democrats so afraid of looking soft on immigrants they would cave, their strategy failed. Why?  Because Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee stopped them cold.

That’s right.  Led by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Democrats repeatedly killed mean-spirited immigration amendments to health reform offered by Sen. Grassley (IA) and Sen. Kyl (AZ). The votes were largely along party lines.

One of the most egregious amendments was defeated last night when Democrats voted down Senator Kyl’s amendment aimed at legal immigrants. Yes, the GOP obsession with “getting tough” on immigrants runs so deep that Sen. Kyl and his colleagues targeted people lawfully present in the country paying full taxes to the government.   Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent reports:

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the Kyl proposal, aside from treating legal residents like second-class citizens, would also put those folks in the tough position of being forced to buy insurance without lending the means to do so. “That clearly is a Catch 22,” he said.

We saw evidence of that same attitude toward lawful immigrants and Latino Americans from leading Republicans during the Sotomayor confirmation debate. It’s not pretty — and it’s just bad politics. According to conservative columnist Ruben Navarrette:

Judge Sonia Sotomayor cruised through her confirmation hearings without a scratch. Too bad we can't say the same about the seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who tried to dent her credibility and wound up demolishing their own. The problem wasn't that Republican senators challenged Sotomayor. That's their job. The problem was that they did their job in such an obsessive and boorish way so as to make clear to the entire country that they had no idea how to deal with someone like Sotomayor.

This kind of Latino outreach amounts to political malpractice.  And it leaves those of us looking forward to an early 2010 Congressional debate on comprehensive immigration reform wondering what leading Republicans like Senator Cornyn, who lives in a state with a large and growing Latino population voted for all of the Republican anti-immigrant amendments in the Senate Finance Committee, are going to do. 

If the past is any guide, Cornyn will pretend he’s for reform while doing everything he can to undermine its enactment.  This cynical approach was so transparent in 2006 and 2007 – the last two times the Senate took up immigration reform – that he now has two strikes against him with moderate Hispanic voters in Texas – the same voters who used to vote heavily for George W. Bush.  In fact, Cornyn’s cowardice symbolizes the sad reality that his party is now so firmly in the clutches of its nativist base that it is driving the fastest growing group of new voters right into the hands of the Democratic Party.  

But what happens next year is for another day.  For today, let us celebrate small victories.  This past week, Senate Democrats showed a good deal of spine by decisively voting down amendments that had everything to do with riling up an anti-immigrant GOP base and nothing to do with solving our nation’s healthcare crisis.

Here’s hoping they they make it a habit. 

Cross-posted at America's Voice and Daily Kos.