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Ted Kennedy's Unlikely Role

This column was written by Fred Barnes.

Don't listen to Teddy Kennedy. If you belong to the small band of conservative brothers inclined to support immigration reform, the Massachusetts senator is on your side. But what he says is likely to make you anxious, vexed, or even crazed. At times, Kennedy makes the compromise immigration bill sound like the latest loopy liberal legislation to provide welfare to the world.

It's not. Indeed, much of the organized left opposes it. The AFL-CIO is especially upset about the provision to bring foreign workers here temporarily. But when you hear Kennedy on the subject, you have to wonder what they're so worried about.

The temps, Kennedy insisted last week, are "going to get the prevailing wage, they are going to be protected by OSHA, if they get hurt on the job they are going to get workmen's compensation. They are going to get worker protections. If they are working on a construction site, they are going to be covered by Davis-Bacon."

Kennedy contrasted this pampering with the fate of those poor illegal immigrants who work here now. Absent the new program, Kennedy said, they'll continue to be exploited, their rights "trampled on." They'll be injured by "sharp hooks, knives, exhausting assembly line speeds." In Massachusetts, illegal workers are "fired for going to the bathroom, denied overtime pay, docked 15 minutes' pay for every minute they were late . . . fired for talking while on the clock, forced to ration toilet paper."

As Senate floor manager of the immigration bill, Kennedy gets emotionally wound up. He exaggerates. He raises his voice. He berates Democratic and Republican senators alike. He intimidates, or tries to anyway. He is a throwback to an older oratorical style. He is a bellower, a bully, something of a blowhard. He is enormously fun to watch.

But what's important about Kennedy is that he's the ally of pro-immigrant Republicans in the Senate debate on the bipartisan immigration bill. And Kennedy is effective. The Republicans gave up a lot to get Kennedy, particularly in agreeing to "Z" visas that would allow the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States to stay as legal residents and eventually seek citizenship.

Led by conservative Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republicans gained Kennedy's support for three significant provisions. The first is a buildup of border security that must be completed before Z visas can be issued and other reforms implemented. The second is a temporary worker program in which the workers must return to their home country. In this bill, Kyl says, "temporary means temporary." And the third is the end of "chain migration," the practice that has allowed legal immigrants to bring their endless extended families here. If the compromise becomes law, only the immigrant, spouse, and minor children will be allowed in.

Should any of these provisions be stripped from the bill, the compromise will fall apart and immigration reform will die, for the foreseeable future anyway. And Kennedy may be the only person who can stop liberal Democrats from stripping and thus killing the bill. He's succeeded so far, and it now appears the bill will pass the Senate when debate resumes in June. The House, where there's no Kennedy counterpart, is another matter.

Kennedy single-handedly turned back an effort by Democratic senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota to wipe out or limit the temp program. Dorgan initially proposed to strike the program entirely. Kennedy's response was ferocious. He referred to Dorgan as the "senator from North Carolina." He said, contrary to what Dorgan had argued, that illegal immigrants, not legal temps, drive down wages.

"I would like the chicken-pluckers to pay $10 or $15 an hour," he said. Today, when they hire illegal immigrants, "they do not do it." He roared at Dorgan, "Who are you trying to kid? Who is the senator . . . trying to fool?"

Dorgan later proposed to end the program after five years, another compromise-killer. This would alienate the business lobby, which supports the bill largely because of the temp program. Dorgan had the votes to win, 49-48, until Kennedy intervened at the last moment. He persuaded Democrat Daniel Akaka of Hawaii to change his vote, and Dorgan lost, 49-48. And the bill was saved.

Kennedy and Kyl easily rebuffed an amendment by Republican senator David Vitter of Louisiana to prohibit Z visas — still another compromise-destroying amendment. Kennedy also scolded Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama for seeking to bar newly legalized immigrants from qualifying for the earned income tax credit. "This amendment would hurt children," Kennedy shouted. "We need to help children, not hurt them. They should not have to pay for the sins of their parents."

The bipartisan group of 12 senators who negotiated the compromise met daily last week (several times in Kennedy's office) to decide which amendments they would accept and which they would oppose as poison pills like Dorgan's that shatter the compromise and kill the bill.

The four Democratic senators running for president — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd — were not part of these talks, and it showed. Clinton and Biden, supposedly backers of immigration reform, voted with Dorgan (and the AFL-CIO) to eliminate the temporary workers program and blow up the compromise. Obama and Dodd were absent. All four voted with Dorgan on the five-year limit, also a deal-breaker.

On the touchy issue of whether illegal immigrants should pay back taxes to get Z visas, Kennedy proved to be tolerant. He and Kyl had arranged a tradeoff whereby the collection of back taxes was scratched in exchange for Z visa holders not being credited for Social Security taxes they paid while working here illegally.

But when an amendment by Republican senator John McCain mandating payment of back taxes was introduced, Kennedy let it pass by voice vote. He and Kyl figured it was better not to oppose such a popular measure.

In the Senate, there's one more serious obstacle to passage. That's the plan by liberal Democrats — Obama is one — to restore legal immigration based largely on family ties — chain migration — rather than education, job skills, and other measures of merit. Again, if the liberals succeed, it means immigration reform is dead. Kyl and Republicans will bail out.

After the bipartisan compromise was announced, Senator Lindsey Graham returned to South Carolina, spoke to the state Republican convention, and was booed when he mentioned Kennedy. "Kennedy is in an I-want-to-legislate mode," Graham said. "When you catch him in the I-want-to-legislate mode, you can do some business." True, but Graham was wise not to bring Kennedy with him to emphasize the point.

By Fred Barnes

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