GOP blames Obama for failure of last Senate push on immigration

President Obama’s push for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws comes nearly six years after he was blamed by some Republicans for undermining the last serious effort.

Obama in 2007 backed an amendment to sunset a guest-worker program that was an essential part of an immigration deal crafted by Republicans and former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

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Kennedy opposed the amendment, but Obama — who was then running for president — supported the measure, and it was approved by one vote, 49-48.

The immigration bill then stalled, and the Senate coalition failed to regain enough momentum to push it to final passage.

Memories of the 2007 “poison pill” amendment are coloring perceptions of this year’s immigration debate, even though some participants differ on some of the details from six years ago.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday blamed the guest-worker amendment, sponsored by then-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), for killing the 2007 bill.

“In 2007, future flow scuttled the bill. Byron Dorgan did an amendment and it scuttled the bill,” said Schumer.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is likely to be a key vote if an immigration bill is to pass this year’s Senate, said Obama must have known his support for the amendment would doom the 2007 effort.

“To me, the big sin that he committed was trying to undercut the deal. He had to know that the amendment to sunset the temporary program, the guest-worker program, would have it all unravel,” Graham said in an interview.

Dorgan disputes such characterizations.

“That’s nonsense. A vote for my amendment is not what blew up the bill, it was not a poison pill at all,” he said. “Those who negotiate these bills always bring them to the floor and always oppose every amendment and always say that any amendment is a poison pill.”

The 2007 fight highlights the difficulty the White House and Congress face this year in trying to move a broad immigration bill.

While a bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed to principles of a deal that are similar to Obama’s stated goals, the process of writing legislation will introduce landmines that could blow up a deal.

The senators who unveiled immigration reform principles on Monday say legislation must provide businesses with the ability to hire lower-skilled workers in a “timely manner,” setting up another debate over a guest-worker program.

Distrust over what happened in 2007 could also be an issue, as many of the players in that debate will be involved in the 2013 fight. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Graham, along with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), are the lead Republican sponsors of the bipartisan framework for immigration reform released this week.

The effort to win approval of a 2007 immigration reform bill came after a similar effort in 2006 failed.

As in 2006, a small group of senators from both parties were at the center of the effort, which took place a year before a presidential election that would pit Obama against McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

Shortly after joining the Senate, Obama approached Kennedy about joining immigration-reform talks with McCain. Kennedy said the junior lawmaker could be part of the group if he found a Republican partner, who turned out to be then-Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).

One of the group’s founding principles was that they would work together to battle poison-pill amendments on the Senate floor.

McCain said Obama “broke the agreement we had that we as a group would vote against amendments that could harm the chances of passage even if we supported” those amendments.

The White House argues much has changed since 2007 but otherwise declined to comment publicly on Obama’s role in the 2007 debate

But other participants have a different take on his role.

Frank Sharry, a veteran of several immigration fights who served as the National Immigration Forum’s executive director in 2007, calls the GOP’s version of Obama’s role “so distorted I can hardly recognize it.”

“I remember it a lot differently than the Republican fairytale told about it,” said Sharry.

In the complicated maneuvering on an immigration bill — which split both parties — Sharry said Obama’s vote to sunset the guest worker program was needed to help Democrats get leverage with Republicans.

By adding the language opposed by Republicans, Democrats hoped to convince the GOP to strip a Republican-sponsored amendment that would have subjected illegal immigrants who unsuccessfully applied for legal residency to deportation.

Sharry said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wanted the Dorgan amendment to pass so that he would have something to use to knock out the GOP-sponsored poison-pill amendment and save the larger bill.

“That’s what we knew from our conversations with Reid’s office,” he said.

Senate leaders later agreed to strip the language and a GOP-sponsored poison pill from the legislation, but the Senate coalition failed to regain enough momentum to push it to final passage.

Dorgan said he expected leaders to knock out his amendment in a Senate-House conference.

“I always assumed that would be the case,” he said. “In a circumstance like that where you have a one-vote margin, it’s not unusual if there is a conference to find that stripped out.”

Only 12 Republicans voted to end debate and bring the bill to a final vote 2007. Reid on Thursday blamed the lack of GOP votes for the failure.

Graham and McCain said Obama imperiled the push to pass comprehensive immigration reform by attempting to renegotiate provisions already settled by a bipartisan set of negotiators.

Graham said Obama regularly attended press conferences on comprehensive reform but missed many of the negotiating sessions.

"The general feeling by those involved is that he parachuted into the meetings a lot. He wasn't a consistent contributor. We appreciated his involvement. He was certainly there at all the press conferences but we had a lot of problems with him and quite frankly a couple others who wanted to renegotiate things after they had been closed out by the main group," Graham said.

“I remember one episode that got Sen. Kennedy pretty mad," Graham added, recalling that Kennedy told Obama: “You can't come in here and undo everything. You need to be here on a regular basis.”

McCain said: “Those were private conversations, but I can tell you there was a time Sen. Kennedy was not pleased.”

Graham and McCain say Obama further undermined comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 by sponsoring an amendment to accelerate the termination of a proposed point system for allocating immigration visas. The point system, which the bipartisan Senate group saw as a central reform, would have given more weight to advanced degrees and English proficiency when granting visas.

Obama feared it would be a radical shift for the nation’s immigration system, which traditionally gives visas on the basis of family and employer sponsorships. He worried the visa process would become too class-based if it emphasized post-graduate study and language skills over families and potential employers.

Obama’s sponsorship of the point system language sparked a blowup with Graham on the Senate floor. Graham was furious because he was taking heavy criticism from the GOP’s conservative base for supporting the bipartisan coalition and felt Obama was not holding up his end of the bargain.

Obama later downplayed Graham’s ire as fueled by the natural tension of trying to pass a major bill and too much coffee, according to an Associated Press report at the time. Graham may have been less furious if Obama’s staff had given him a heads-up on the amendment.

Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, said Obama was right to attempt to modify the point system, which she called bad policy.

“From our perspective there were a lot of provisions that were counter productive. The point system was one example. It would have created a convoluted unworkable method for permitting employers to get the workers that they need from abroad,” said Kelley, who at the time was the deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which supported the 2007 legislation.

Kelley said she did not consider Obama a core member of the bipartisan Senate group.

“Kennedy and [Sen. Ken] Salazar [(Colo.)] were really the only two Democrats that were at the center of that backroom negotiation,” she said.