Desire to tackle immigration reform splits Reid from centrist Democrats

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) reelection interests are putting him at odds with the centrists he has vigorously protected over the past year and a half on the issue of immigration reform.

Vulnerable senators like Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) want to stay away from immigration reform during an election year, but political experts in Nevada say mobilizing Hispanic voters could be the key to a reelection victory for Reid, whose favorability rating is below 40 percent.

One centrist Democratic senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to offend Reid, said this is an instance in which the leader’s political needs conflict with what’s best for colleagues from conservative states, such as Lincoln.

Hispanics make up 20 percent of Nevada’s population and about 12 percent of its registered voters.

In 2008, Hispanic voters made up 15 percent of the people who actually went to the polls, and their overwhelming support for President Barack Obama helped him carry the state. Obama enjoyed nearly a 50-point advantage among Hispanic voters in Nevada.

“Reid feels he needs to roll the dice and work up some enthusiasm among the base and make sure they get out to vote,” said Ted Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Jelen thinks immigration reform will help Reid mobilize the Democratic base, which is necessary for him to have a chance of winning in an election he says will depend on turnout.

“Looking at the polls, there are very few undecided voters. This is going to be entirely about turnout,” he said.

Many centrist Democrats, however, see a push on immigration reform as risky to their electoral hopes.

“The people in Arkansas want us focusing on creating jobs for the 100,000 Arkansans that have lost their jobs and putting our economy back on track,” said Lincoln, who along with Reid is considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

“Without a doubt, in Arkansas jobs and the economy is the No. 1 issue,” Lincoln added.

Reid surprised lawmakers in the Senate when he declared at a large, cheering rally in Nevada over the weekend that Congress would begin work immediately on an immigration overhaul.

Lawmakers had considered it unlikely that the Senate would pass, or even bring to the floor, comprehensive immigration reform this year.

The troubled economy also makes it politically difficult to tackle immigration reform, which would likely allow illegal workers to be placed on a path to citizenship.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said immigration reform is a more incendiary issue given the nation’s 9.7 percent unemployment rate.

“It’s more incendiary with other people coming across the border to take jobs that would otherwise be available,” said Nelson. “On the other hand, there is always that argument [that illegal workers] take the jobs that nobody else will take. I don’t know that’s the case.”

Jobs are also a huge issue in Nevada, which has a 13.2 percent unemployment rate.

Jon Ralston, a political columnist for The Las Vegas Sun, said there are signs that Hispanic voters are less enthusiastic about voting this year, which would be a major concern for Reid.

“He needs to tap into that voter bloc,” Ralston said.

But Ralston speculated that Reid may have overpromised.

“Is this the first time Reid has gotten worked up at an event and said something that he may later regret?” Ralston said of Reid’s weekend comments.

Regan Lachapelle, Reid’s spokeswoman, said that he has consistently supported immigration reform as a high priority.

Indeed, at a news conference last June, Reid listed immigration reform as the third-highest-priority domestic initiative after healthcare reform and comprehensive energy reform.

“Sen. Reid has been consistent in his opinion that immigration reform is one of his top priorities,” said Lachapelle. “He remains committed to considering a comprehensive immigration reform bill on the Senate floor as soon as possible.”

But the political environment has changed since last summer, leading many to conclude that immigration reform would be shelved, even though Reid’s deputy, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Conference, was working on an overhaul plan.

After Sen. Scott Brown (R) captured the seat held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) in a Massachusetts special election, some lawmakers assumed that immigration reform would drop from the agenda.

“The president said that jobs is the No. 1 issue for 2010, and we couldn’t agree more,” Schumer said at a press conference in February. “In fact, the top three issues on our agenda this year are jobs, jobs and jobs.”

An aide to one centrist Democrat expressed surprise over Reid’s pledge to pass immigration reform this year. The aide noted that the issue did not come up at a recent meeting Democratic legislative directors held to discuss the agenda for the rest of the year.

A new push on immigration reform would further excite the Republican Party base, which has already been mobilized by the healthcare reform debate.

The issue could also prove controversial among working-class independent voters.

During the healthcare reform debate, Reid tried to give centrists as much political cover as possible by letting Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) spend weeks pursuing an elusive compromise with Republicans.

But now Reid has begun to focus more on his own reelection — which means revving up the Democratic base back home.

His colleagues, however, would prefer that the focus remain on creating  jobs. “I think we ought to focus on getting our economy moving again, and also

I’m very concerned about the national debt and annual deficits we have,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Pryor added, however, that he could support immigration reform if it enjoyed substantial bipartisan support.

Schumer has partnered with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) but has not yet found a second Republican to join the effort.