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AWOL on the Hill

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Should Congress make English the official language of the U.S.?

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So what happens now? That's what thinking Americans not stirred up by hysterical talk-show ideologues and bloggers from both the right and the left should demand of politicians to keep the number of illegal immigrants from reaching 13 million in the next year or two, with no sane approach to the problem at hand.

Will Senate godfathers and the White House manage to resurrect hopes by winning a pledge from Republicans to limit debate and amendments? Probably not, but it's worth a try.

By failing to adopt one of the only true compromises between Congress and the White House since President Bush took office, the Senate may have set back any rational solution to this most pressing domestic problem, at least until after the 2008 elections and probably longer. By then it is estimated that another million or so immigrants will have crossed the southern border illegally despite security fences, electronic surveillance and increased patrols.

In 44 years of covering events here, it is difficult to remember a period more bereft of bipartisanship. Over the last 20 years, the anger and hostility between right and the left, Republican and Democrat, have grown so intense and shrill as to thwart almost any meaningful achievement. The refusal to accept a long-sought compromise to reform the chaotic immigration system is just the latest result of this lack of civility in governing.

In many ways it is just another example of the corrupting power of the Internet, where a minority of citizens can turn themselves into a potent force to pressure lawmakers. In fact, a sizable majority of the people favor the legislation despite efforts by opponents to paint it as a declaration of amnesty for illegal aliens at the expense of hardworking, heavily taxed citizens — another myth.

Most seeking escape from poverty in their countries of origin would not be as attracted here without the understanding there is a market for their labor. They willing and able to do the jobs and perform services shunned by overeducated, pampered Americans. For them, there is no stigma attached to these jobs. As long as there are no orderly controls, tens of thousands of them a month will attempt to find a way to stay here permanently at any cost, straining the economic foundation of many communities.

So the defeat of the compromise between President Bush and the Senate's bipartisan leadership leaves us once again with only those failed, often draconian, measures. Let's face it: The newly combined immigration and customs agency in the Department of Homeland Security is as overwhelmed as the old Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Justice Department was despite hugely increased numbers of Border Patrol and other agents.

It is particularly sad that without revival of the plan, Congress and the White House again will have failed to solve a premier domestic problem. Congress will have been unable to carry out its duties, remaining mostly a failed institution of crybabies, whiners and special-interest lackeys.

A rare White House attempt to set aside its differences with Democrats will have become the victim of an almost complete absence of statesmanship and courage, two ingredients present in the greatest legislative achievements in the nation's history. The president's last chance to salvage a place in history untainted by Iraq and Afghanistan also will have vanished unless he can win over dissidents in his own party.

In 44 years of witnessing the deliberations and machinations at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the most meaningful acts have resulted from compromise and a willingness to put aside differences and even face re-election defeat for the common good.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was the best example, and should serve as a model for the kind of compromise needed to resolve the major problems of our society. It was born of an absolute commitment from a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, and a Senate Republican minority leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois. The combined forces broke the filibuster of Southern Democrats and brought about the most definitive statement for human rights in the 20th century.

Those lawmakers who scorned the immigration package should consider that without this compromise they will have missed a chance to bring order out of chaos and add their voices to those who spoke so eloquently in 1964.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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