Kennedy-McCain Partnership Falters

Kennedy-McCain partnership falters

Immigration bill on shelf amid campaign

By Rick Klein,
Boston Globe Staff
March 22, 2007

WASHINGTON — Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John McCain have all but abandoned plans to cosponsor a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year, as McCain faces tough questions from conservatives on the presidential campaign trail about his support for immigrants' rights.

Kennedy, frustrated by the slow progress of his negotiations with McCain, is instead considering filing a bill on his own, modeled largely on the measure endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. McCain is continuing to talk to Kennedy about immigration proposals, but the Arizona Republican has not committed to supporting Kennedy's approach.

The erosion of the unlikely political partnership that brought the liberal Kennedy and the conservative McCain together on immigration suggests a tough road ahead for passing a sweeping immigration measure this year. Further complicating efforts to find consensus, a group of Republicans is working with the White House to draft an alternative bill.

McCain's hesitancy about joining Kennedy on the same issue they worked together on in the previous Congress also speaks to an emerging dynamic in the Republican presidential race.

McCain has encountered anger from hard-line immigration foes on the campaign trail, particularly over an aspect in last year's bill that would have allowed most undocumented immigrants to work toward citizenship. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, one of McCain's rivals for the GOP nomination, has been especially sharp in his condemnation of McCain's approach to immigration.

Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who is supporting Romney's candidacy, said McCain appears to be learning that Republicans won't accept proposals that allow undocumented immigrants to gain legal status until the borders are secured.

“That's an important position for the Republican Party,” DeMint said. “We're certainly not going to start off with any kind of expanded visa program, or any kind of normalization of those who are here.”

A McCain spokeswoman said the senator has not deviated from his fundamental position on immigration. Though he and Kennedy remain at odds over key points, McCain continues to believe that the matter must be handled in a comprehensive measure that includes border security and addresses the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the United States.

“We would love to come to some sort of an agreement,” said Eileen McMenamin, a McCain spokeswoman. “There are places where they disagree, but the senator's been really focused on getting some sort of workable solution.”

Indeed, McCain hasn't changed his immigration rhetoric on the campaign trail. On Sunday in New Hampshire, he told reporters traveling on his campaign bus that he still supports the basic framework he has long described as vital to addressing the challenging of immigration.

“We have to have a comprehensive approach to reform, which means a temporary worker [program] as well as securing our borders, as well as addressing the 12 million people who are here illegally, in both in a comprehensive and humane fashion,” he said.

Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, expressed confidence that immigration reform will move forward, even if McCain's name isn't attached to the bill. He added that he remains committed to working with McCain.

“We'll have a bipartisan bill, and I think at the end of the day that Senator McCain will be part of it,” Kennedy said. “There's still hope. . . . It's never fast enough as far as I'm concerned, but we understand that time is not necessarily an advantage.”

Supporters of the bill acknowledge that the issue must be dealt with by this summer, since it will become politically untenable in an environment dominated by 2008 presidential politics.

Last year, the Senate passed a proposal — modeled on one introduced jointly by Kennedy and McCain — that included new border security measures as well as a temporary “guest worker” program, a longtime goal of the Bush administration. The measure also included provisions that would have given most undocumented immigrants a chance to work toward citizenship if they pay fines and back taxes, maintain steady employment and clean criminal records, and learn English.

But the bill died in the House, where conservative foes prevented it from coming up. This year, Kennedy and McCain had planned to jump-start the debate by reintroducing their bill, and indicated in recent weeks that their bill would be released imminently.

Their negotiations, however, stalled repeatedly, and were complicated by McCain's travel on the presidential campaign, according to Senate aides.

Most recently, according to aides, McCain objected to a provision favored by Kennedy that would require guest workers to receive the prevailing wage for the industry and region they work in; a similar provision was part of last year's bill.

The delay has frustrated Democrats, several of whom suggest privately that McCain is concerned about his standing among conservatives and does not want to again support a bill with Kennedy, a well-known liberal icon.

The failure of McCain and Kennedy to agree on a bill has complicated the legislative picture on Capitol Hill. Two House members, Democrat Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona, were expected to unveil a proposal today that closely tracks Kennedy's plan.

In the Senate, a group of Republicans has been meeting with Bush administration officials to craft an alternative proposal.[]