For two years, the White House thought the chances of getting an immigration bill passed in Congress lay with Arizona’s Republican senator. Unfortunately for President Bush, he was counting on the wrong one.
While the White House was working with Sen. John McCain, Arizona’s other senator, Jon Kyl, emerged this year as the most important player in the immigration debate, showing that even as the Congress has grown more liberal with Democrats in control, the immigration debate has shifted to the right.
It’s also a recognition that as Mr. Kyl goes, so go a number of Republicans.
“If it’s good enough for Kyl, it’s going to be good enough for a lot of conservatives,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and one of the top House lawmakers pressing for a bill this year.
The debate starts today when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is expected to use a parliamentary procedure to resurrect one of last year’s bills. His move is designed to pressure Republicans to get something done, but they said they can’t meet the deadline.
Mr. Kyl is leading a group of Republicans working with the White House, two Cabinet secretaries and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Democrats’ leader on immigration, to try to write a tough and workable bill.
“There’s only one way that there’s going to be legislation adopted this year, and that’s in a bipartisan way,” Mr. Kyl said yesterday, warning that Mr. Reid’s move could “break up any chance” for such an agreement.
Mr. Kyl has been involved in the immigration debate for years, with a reputation for being on the pro-enforcement side of the issue. Last year, along with Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, he championed a middle-of-the road bill that included a guest-worker program but did not allow most current or future illegal aliens a path to citizenship.
But Mr. Bush went the other direction, embracing a bill championed by Mr. Kennedy and Mr. McCain that offered a path to citizenship to illegal aliens and future guest workers, which most Republicans deemed “amnesty.”
That bill passed the Senate 62-36 with mostly Democratic support but stalled in the House.
Mr. Kyl was pushed to the periphery — so much so that he and Mr. Cornyn weren’t invited to the White House for the April 25, 2006, meeting at which Mr. Bush blessed the citizenship approach. Both men ended up voting against the bill.
“Perhaps they thought they could do it without us last year,” Mr. Cornyn said. “I think this year they see from the perspective of the House of Representatives and just from the way this debate has evolved that they need to be inclusive rather than excluding.”
Mr. Kyl said he hasn’t changed positions but realized during a meeting earlier this year with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that they shared many of the same principles for immigration.
“When he left that meeting, I thought for the first time I had really gotten through to an administration official what I thought was critical to making legislation work,” Mr. Kyl said. “He came back to me and said, ‘I think your idea is totally consistent with what we’d like to do, can we keep talking?’ ”
Mr. Kyl received a full-court press a month ago when he flew from Arizona to Washington on Air Force One — a four-hour trip he spent with Mr. Bush and Mr. Chertoff. But he dismissed talk of being wooed by the president.
“I would describe that as me having a great opportunity to let the secretary and the president know what I thought. So perhaps I cleverly wooed the White House,” he said.
Boosting Mr. Kyl’s hand, many of the Republicans who voted for last year’s bill no longer support it. They are sticking by Mr. Kyl in his negotiations.
But Democrats and the groups pressing for a broad path to citizenship as part of the final bill worry that as the Republicans’ point man, Mr. Kyl will force the bill too far to the right to be acceptable.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said Mr. Kyl was “an ardent opponent of the Senate immigration bill last year.” He said he’s watching to see if Mr. Kyl really is interested in an agreement this year, saying it would be “kind of a remarkable turnabout, if true.”
“The White House is betting on him, most Republicans now seem to be lining up behind him, so the spotlight is on,” Mr. Sharry said. “I think he’s intent on getting a bill, I don’t doubt his sincerity, but it’s going to be very difficult for Jon Kyl and Kennedy to shake hands on an immigration deal.”