The role the Senate plays in our legislative process was best described by George Washington. "We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer," he told a skeptical Thomas Jefferson, "to cool it."
Indeed, after two weeks of debate on the comprehensive immigration reform bill, a growing number of Americans have cooled on this legislative endeavor. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that support for the "grand bargain" has slipped three points (to 23%) while opposition has ticked up to 50%. Other polls have found that the more Americans know about it, the less likely they are to support it.
Conservative senators took to the Senate floor to correct various shortcomings in the massive bill. In most cases, they failed, sometimes by lopsided margins. But, even in defeat, they forced the bipartisan coalition of senators behind the agreement to confront some "inconvenient truths" about their bargain. Here's a partial list:
Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) was alarmed that the "grand bargain" would grant amnesty, green cards, and ultimately citizenship to gang members, sex offenders, alien smugglers who use firearms, repeat drunken drivers, and "absconders" (aliens who flout court orders to leave the U.S.). He tried to deny citizenship to these "fugitive aliens" (law enforcement officials estimate 636,000 are in the U.S.). His amendment failed, thanks to the political cover provided by an alternative amendment from Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Though Kennedy's amendment would bar future waves of criminal aliens from gaining legal status, it would do nothing to bring those already in the U.S. to justice. Lesson: The "grand bargain" would grant citizenship to 636,000 aliens who have thumbed their nose at our criminal-justice system.
Sen. Norm Coleman (R.-Minn.) believes federal, state or local officials should be allowed to question individuals about their immigration status if the officials believe they are here illegally. He lost by a single vote -- 48 to 49. Lesson: The "grand bargain" allows cities to shield criminal aliens from prosecution by granting them "sanctuary."
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) tried to eliminate one of the preferences the legislation gives to illegal agricultural workers. "What many of us may not know," Allard said, "is the enormous advantage the bill's point system gives to people who have violated our immigration laws relative to people who are seeking to enter this country legally."
Revealingly, one of the bill's managers, Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Penn.), acknowledged Allard's point. "You can justifiably raise an issue as to why give a preference to agricultural workers," he said, "and the answer, although not very satisfactory, is because it is part of an interwoven accommodation on many provisions of the bill."
Nonetheless, Allard's "level playing field" amendment went down in flames, attracting only 31 votes. Lesson: The "grand bargain" treats lawbreakers more favorably than those who obey the rules.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) wanted to require illegal immigrants granted amnesty under the agreement to buy minimal catastrophic health policies. This would require the 12 million "Z" visa holders to assume responsibility for some of their health costs -- costs now borne by taxpayers and those with private health coverage. This commonsense amendment failed, gaining only 43 votes. Lesson: Those granted amnesty will be free to offload the costs they incur in emergency rooms and subsidized health clinics on others.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), suspicious of White House claims that amnesty recipients "are not entitled to welfare, Food Stamps, SSI, non-emergency Medicaid, or other programs and privileges enjoyed by U.S. citizens," sought to deny payments under the Earned Income Tax Credit to those granted amnesty under the bill. According to Sessions, these payments will average $1,800 per recipient. Kennedy acknowledged that the 12 million amnesty recipients would, indeed, be eligible for EITC payments and defended the new policy vigorously. Though Sessions prevailed 56-41, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid quickly offered a "clarifying" amendment that seemingly gutted his accomplishment.
Lesson: The "grand bargain" may entitle amnesty recipients to cash welfare payments.
The only substantive victory for conservatives came when Sen. Cornyn won approval of an amendment to stop illegals from fraudulently applying for "Z" visas. Under it, law enforcement officials could screen "Z" visa applications to determine whether applicants have criminal records that would require deportation. The margin: a surprising 57 to 39. Lesson: But for Cornyn's effort, the "grand bargain" would have greased the path to citizenship for aliens with criminal records.
By slowing down this legislative freight train, the "cooling saucer" of the Senate has shed much-needed light on the shortcomings of this complex back-room deal. Kudos to Senate conservatives for their perseverance.
Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Human Events