WILLIAMS: Bipartisan deal could address immigration

Congress is going through a spell of pre-Lenten repentance.

The failure to pass the DREAM Act in the lame-duck session has opened the door to several confessionals about Congress’s sinful failure to deal with the nation’s crying need for immigration reform.

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Last week Sen. Lindsey Graham, the conservative South Carolina Republican, told me he is talking with Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, about the road to a new immigration plan. That follows news that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who abandoned support for any immigration proposals during a turn to the hard right in his 2010 re-election campaign, now thinks there is a “shot” at getting an immigration bill passed this year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has long said immigration reform is a priority, and last week a spokesman for Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Democrats now plan to reintroduce the DREAM Act in this session.

And President Obama keeps preaching to the congressional conscience on immigration. After the lame-duck session he said the legislative failure to pass the DREAM Act was his biggest disappointment. He also met with the Hispanic Caucus to admit his own failing at not doing more on immigration before the lame-duck session. And he kept his word in the State of the Union by lambasting those who “prevented the Senate from doing what most Americans understand is best for the country.”

The president is not exaggerating. At the time of the Dream Act’s defeat in December, 54 percent of Americans said they favored its passage. Overall, a January Gallup poll found 64 percent of Americans saying the problem of illegal immigration is extremely or very important for Congress to deal with right now.

The spark for the current spurt of cloakroom conversations on immigration is neither the polls nor the president’s inspiring words. It is the Republican realization that they are on the verge of going from political winners to political losers on immigration.

Anger at illegal immigrants has been a reliable stick to stir the right-wing base and whip up ratings for talk radio since the last immigration bill was defeated. But in the 2010 elections the stick changed hands. The rising political clout of Latino voters kept the Republicans from winning the Senate with strong turnout in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington.

Recent estimates on population growth from the 2010 Census indicate the situation is getting worse for the Republicans. One report indicates that racial minorities, overwhelmingly Hispanics, made up more than 85 percent of U.S. population growth in the last decade. And the largest increases are taking place in key 2012 presidential battleground states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Hispanic newcomers across the red-state South are threatening the GOP’s hold on several congressional districts.

As Sen. Graham puts it: “How in the world can the Republican Party sustain itself nationally without reform?” So the answer, beginning with Republicans including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, Jon Kyl of Arizona, McCain and Graham, is to offer the Democrats a deal. They want the president and Reid to agree to allow a border security bill to come up for a vote. The McCain-Kyl bill will formally acknowledge steps the administration has already taken to secure the border and note the record number of illegal immigrants being deported by President Obama.

The Democrats will agree to minimal spending to finish sections of the border wall in current hot spots for illegal crossings into the United States. The Republicans also want some money to pay for some added federal agents on the border and mandatory jail sentences for anyone caught entering the country illegally.

In exchange, McCain, Kyl and Cornyn, all from border states, say they will take the lead in producing GOP votes for comprehensive immigration reform.

“Pass this bill pronto,” said Graham, “and then it is on to immigration reform. We can get 80 votes in the Senate if we first get a vote on the McCain-Kyl bill. And then it will sail through the House because it lays the immigration reform issue in our [Republican] lap. Then the question will be for Republicans, ‘Are you interested in fixing the immigration problem or not?’ ”

It is possible Democrats will not turn the other cheek. Republicans have played politics with the immigration issue. Democrats are being asked to trust Republicans to follow through on immigration reform once the border security bill is law.

The Republicans are banking on pressure coming from GOP governors and state legislatures. They are working on Arizona-style bills to give local authorities more power to detain, jail and deport illegal immigrants. Virginia and Georgia have bills in committee to keep illegal immigrants out of public colleges. Four more states are looking to force anyone without papers to pay out-of-state tuition rates. Big business is also urging the White House to make a deal because they can’t get the workers they want from overseas, for high end as well as manual labor.

So now the sinners, Republicans and Democrats, have a chance at redemption. Maybe now they understand how the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants have felt for some time.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.