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Is Immigration A Killer Issue For Congress?

Blogger extraordinaire Mickey Kaus notes the defeat of Republican Rep. Chris Cannon by a 60 percent to 40 percent vote in Utah's Third Congressional District, by many measures the most Republican district in the nation. This was the third time Cannon had faced tough primary fights from opponents who had attacked him for his stands on immigration. Cannon sponsored a bill to provide in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants who graduate from high school and supported comprehensive immigration laws (with guest worker and legalization as well as border and workplace enforcement provisions). Cannon's 2004 and 2006 primary opponents were poorly funded and poorly organized; his opponent this time, Jason Chaffetz, a former aide to Gov. Jon Huntsman, was poorly funded but well organized.

Kaus quotes me as writing, after Cannon survived the 2006 primary, that his type of stand on immigration was "not political death." His defeat this year makes it clear that while such stands are not always political death, they can be sometimes; and I should add that you don't see many 12-year incumbents defeated 60 percent to 40 percent in a primary.

What does this mean for immigration legislation in the next Congress? Not a lot. I thought that this would be the first presidential election in my memory in which the major party nominees would have sharply different positions on immigration. It would have been, had John McCain not won the Republican nomination. But McCain and Barack Obama both supported the comprehensive bills that came forward in the Senate in May 2006 and May 2007 (though Obama voted for amendments that sponsors said would kill the bill). Since summer 2007, McCain has said, often in grudging tones, that we have to strengthen border enforcement first before we can pass comprehensive legislation, though the sharp-eyed Kaus, who opposes a comprehensive bill, is quick to pounce on statements which he believes indicate McCain is still determined to push through comprehensive legislation.

My sense is that the Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress doesn't want to bring up an immigration bill, comprehensive or otherwise, regardless of who is elected president. The reason is that they fear their caucuses are split that they cannot come up with the votes for a comprehensive bill from Democrats alone, and that (after Cannon's defeat) they can't count on almost any Republican support on crucial votes. There are plenty of Democrats in the current Congress, and will probably be more in the next, who see support for a comprehensive bill ("amnesty," to radio talk show hosts) as a political liability. The lobbies that want a bill--some Hispanic organizations, a few ethnic Asian groups, high-tech execs hungry for more visas, certain other business interests--just don't weigh so heavily in Democratic calculations as interests like the public employee unions that are driving their stands on taxes and healthcare and trade. The comprehensive immigration folks, in this view, thus can and will be stiffed.

Chris Cannon's defeat made this a little, but only a very little, likelier.

By Michael Barone

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