Immigration minefield for ’08 hopefuls

The imminent release of a new Senate immigration bill exposes a minefield of political hazards for the six senators chasing their parties’ presidential nominations.

Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle have expressed readiness to restart the debate over combining border enforcement with a path to earned citizenship for illegal immigrants in the country. Yet Democrats now face high expectations on immigration after campaigning on last year’s failure to reach a conference on comprehensive reform, and the Senate GOP’s two 2008 candidates face their own backlash over backing the bill last year.

The White House contender most openly staking his electoral fortunes on immigration is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is putting the finishing touches on this year’s edition of the reform bill he offered last year with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Their measure could emerge as quickly as next week, with McCain helping corral Republican conference members who are wary of sitting down with newly empowered Democrats.

At a Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday that kick-started the immigration debate, ranking Republican Arlen Specter (Pa.) reflected the concerns of some members and aides that McCain and Kennedy were not bringing their colleagues to the table early on.

“I have been concerned about reading what is happening behind the scenes in the newspapers,” Specter said, adding that he had told Kennedy twice of the lack of staff-level communication.

Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Capps disputed the notion that members were on the sidelines, citing informal talks that have occurred off the floor. One key Republican not present at those talks, however, was Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), now among McCain’s presidential primary foes.

Brownback is as conscious as McCain of the conservative base’s discontent with last year’s Senate immigration bill, and any changes seen as left-leaning — such as the elimination of the three-tiered path to citizenship in last year’s legislation — could sway the Kansan to vote no this time around.

One Senate GOP aide noted that Republicans were more willing to swallow unsavory elements of the dense immigration bill because they knew their leadership was ultimately in control: “Even if they somehow come up with a bill that’s where it was last year, the conferees are going to be Democrats, not Republicans.”

Another Republican staffer agreed that McCain has much to lose in this year’s run at immigration reform.

“[For conservatives], the fight is going to be multiplied this year because of concerns that [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Ted Kennedy and McCain will be in charge,” the aide said. “This is definitely a strange timing for this in [McCain’s] courtship of conservatives.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) voiced grievances of her own that could haunt presidentially inclined Democrats. Feinstein said earlier this week that she had seen no details of the Kennedy-McCain draft, adding plainly that she has “no investment” in that bill.

Feinstein, whose state boasts the highest number of electoral votes in the nation, said yesterday that she favored pursuing two narrower immigration plans instead of comprehensive reform: AgJobs, which would provide temporary worker visas to agricultural workers; and the DREAM Act, which calls for children of illegal immigrants to achieve legal status while seeking college degrees.

Four 2008 candidates already have cosponsored Feinstein’s AgJobs bill this year: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and McCain. Potential candidate Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has also signed on. All five have been sponsors since 2005, and Democratic candidate John Edwards was also a sponsor during his time in the Senate.

Democrats like Clinton and Obama are caught between groups representing Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting bloc in the U.S., and traditional allies in organized labor who want to ensure an immigration bill does not hurt U.S. workers.

Labor organizations took different positions on last year’s bill. Unite Here! which represents textile workers, and the Service Employees International Union supported the Kennedy-McCain bill, but the nation’s broadest union, the AFL-CIO, opposed it, as did the Teamsters.

AFL-CIO legislative representative Sonya Ramirez described this as “more of a fracture than a split” and said it would be a mischaracterization to think labor was not fully engaged in last year’s debate.

“I think that’s a convenient notion,” she said. “Because we refused to actively oppose bills in the last cycle, people think we had disagreements and kept them to ourselves.”

She said the AFL-CIO’s engagement on the issue resulted in amendments added to the Kennedy-McCain bill by Obama, which Ramirez said are likely to be included in the bill Kennedy and McCain are preparing.

Amendments introduced by the Illinois senator last year were approved by voice vote and required that temporary workers be paid a “prevailing wage.” Obama also would have restricted the use of a new visa for low-skilled workers in areas with unemployment rates above 9 percent.

This year, however, Ramirez said there is no guarantee that the group won’t actively oppose immigration-reform legislation. For example, the AFL-CIO did not support any of the major immigration bills considered in the upper chamber last year, and has clear policies stating that temporary-worker programs would be disastrous to U.S. labor standards, Ramirez said.

Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, acknowledged that Democratic presidential candidates will want to show they are not soft on immigration. Still, she added, it will be difficult for presidential candidates not to support immigration reform because of the burgeoning engagement of Latino voters.

The Democrats’ dilemma was illustrated earlier this year, when Hispanic-American radio host and blogger Mario Solis-Marich seized upon an interview with former national party chairman and Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe. Solis-Marich launched McAuliffe’s comment that “you’ve got to shut the borders down” around the blogosphere, reminding Clinton that “Latinos have a choice in ’08.” The Clinton campaign promptly noted that McAuliffe did not speak for the senator.