- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

Maybe some recent polls will put some backbone into Senate Republicans. But don’t bet the rent money on it.

The percentages vary a little from poll to poll, as usual, but these polls agree on one thing: The public’s top priority on the immigration issues is controlling the borders. They prefer the tougher bill passed by the House of Representatives to the Senate’s weaker approach.

Much of the media have depicted the House bill as harsh or draconian, as if it is a terrible thing to make illegal entry into this country a crime. The House bill is what is supposed to have sparked massive protest demonstrations around the country by illegal aliens and their supporters.

Those demonstrations may have impressed the media and intimidated politicians but they didn’t change many minds among the American people. A majority of Republicans, Democrats, and independents all favor the tougher House bill. The percentages differed among these groups, but they were all majorities.

It is really striking that 53 percent of Hispanics supported the House bill. The loudmouths at the demonstrations did not speak for all Hispanics.

On this issue, as on some others, the Democrats in Congress are more united than the Republicans, though the Republicans have a majority in both Houses. But a united minority can often defeat a divided majority.

As things stand at the moment on the immigration issue, the Democrats clearly have the upper hand politically as this year’s elections approach.

The Democrats can solidify their base behind amnesty. But the Republicans’ base — 81 percent of whom are behind the tougher House bill — are undermined, if not demoralized, by the vacillation of the Senate Republicans and the Bush administration on strong border control, apparently out of fear of alienating Hispanic voters.

In view of the latest polls, it is not clear how many Hispanic voters will be alienated. The greater danger is that the congressional Republicans will alienate their own supporters.

The irony in all this is that the Republicans could turn the tables on the Democrats and put them on the defensive, instead of being on the defensive themselves. There is no reason other than politics why amnesty and border control must be in the same bill. It will take time to see how various new border control methods work in practice. And there is no reason to rush ahead on dealing with the people already illegally here before the facts are in on how well the borders have been secured.

Separate border-control legislation would force Democrats to stand up and be counted on this issue without the political cover of a package deal. Some more weak-kneed Republicans also want this political cover. But taking away the package deal would damage the Democrats far more.

Legislation dealing solely — and seriously — with border control might be difficult for some congressional Republicans to vote for but it would be a political nightmare for the Democrats in Congress. And a bill takes just 51 votes to pass in the Senate.

Unfortunately, President Bush has pushed the package deal and used the strawman argument that we cannot find and deport millions of people, though virtually no one has said we could.

The real question is whether sweeping the illegal aliens problem under the rug by calling them legal will bring in still more millions of illegals, as a previous amnesty has already done. Nor will calling amnesty by some other name do anything more than undermine the confidence of the American people in general and the Republican base in particular.

Sometimes caution is the most dangerous policy. Gen Douglas MacArthur once defined defensive warfare in one word: “Defeat.”

Frankly, the Republicans deserve to lose this fall’s election, after their wild spending and pandering to economic ignorance on gas prices. But a Republican defeat would only bring in the Democrats — and the country does not deserve anything that disastrous.

The Democrats’ petty obstruction and irresponsible demagoguery in wartime disqualifies them for national leadership when a nuclear Iran and nuclear terrorists loom on the horizon.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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