Sen. Jon Kyl is leading the Republican charge in Washington to broker a passable bipartisan immigration bill.
It is a role that would have seemed almost unfathomable a year ago, when Arizona’s other Republican senator, John McCain, was controlling the reins and Kyl was backing a rigid approach to reform.
But, for the past few months, Kyl has been working closely with the White House and Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Democrats’ main point man on immigration reform, to come up with a bill that will pass muster with immigration hard-liners and those who favor a temporary-worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Kyl’s emergence as the key Republican negotiator on immigration reform at a time when Democrats control Congress seems out of step with the enforcement-first approach he took last year. But his clout among conservatives is precisely why he is leading the charge.
Last year, it was the more liberal McCain doing the brokering. The campaign trail and the calculus of presidential politics, however, have since pulled McCain away from the central role he played last year.
Now, Kyl is seen as key to getting an immigration bill passed following last year’s stalemate, when the House rejected a Senate bill that provided a guest-worker program as well as a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants. President Bush tapped the powerful conservative, figuring that if Kyl got on board, other conservatives would follow, analysts say.
Kyl voted against last year’s Senate bill. He had introduced his own reform plan, which rejected any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants but called for a temporary-worker program.
Walking a tightrope
Though other Republican senators are also involved, Kyl is the “lynchpin,” said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
“The problem,” Jacoby said, “is it’s much harder for Kyl and Kennedy to find common ground. They are polar opposites.”
Kyl downplayed his role in the negotiations.
“It would be nice if I were the one writing the bill – I’d be a lot happier with it that way,” he said in a written statement. “The reality is, to get something through both the House and the Senate, many people need to be involved in the process, and they are.”
Kyl was at odds last year with Bush, who favored the bill passed by the Senate. The bill was rejected by conservative Republicans in the House who branded it amnesty. Now, Kyl will have to walk a tightrope.
“The concern is that Kyl is going to be pushing the (Bush) administration’s position on this and that he’s going to come into conflict with his own previous stance,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization opposes any form of legalization, saying it would reward people who broke the nation’s immigration laws, allow them to get in front of legal immigrants who played by the rules, and spur more illegal immigration.
The agreement shaping up so far calls for securing the U.S.-Mexican border before putting millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, a process that could take 13 years. It would also require them to pay large fines and leave the country before gaining legal status.
Even so, that is “slow-motion amnesty,” Mehlman said.
Advocates for immigrants, on the other hand, fear Kyl’s involvement will lead to a bill that is too tough on immigrants. They believe Kyl is responsible for pushing the debate to the right, even though Democrats control Congress.
“He seems to be wielding extraordinary influence over the direction of the talks,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum.
The immigrant advocacy group in Washington, D.C., supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and foreign workers allowed to enter the country under a temporary-worker program.
Kyl, however, has opposed giving temporary workers any shot at citizenship, Kelley said.
Meanwhile, the secret negotiations are not moving fast enough for Democrats.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced that he would stick to a long-standing time frame to begin the debate on immigration reform on Monday, even though there is no agreement on what a bill should look like.
With no agreement in hand, Reid said, the Senate will dust off the bill the Senate passed last year.
Kyl asked Reid to hold off.
“A consensus bill is the best chance Congress has to pass immigration reform that can be signed into law,” he said in a written statement. “Democrats and Republicans have spent the past weeks focusing on this issue, and I believe we have already made significant progress toward a long-term solution.”
More time sought
On Wednesday, a group of immigrant advocates held a vigil at the state Capitol in support of comprehensive immigration reform.
“Justice delayed is justice denied. We must proceed with the debate,” said Oscar Gonzales, associate director of the United Farm Workers Foundation.
But other Republicans, including McCain, also pleaded with Reid to give a bipartisan group of lawmakers time to write a compromise proposal before the debate starts.
He and fellow Republicans Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Mel Martinez of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote Reid that pushing ahead before negotiations are complete would be a mistake.
“Despite the complicated nature of these discussions, we are making substantial progress,” they wrote. “We urge you to allow these important bipartisan discussions to continue by delaying your efforts to move forward with legislative proposals that have failed to be signed into law in the past.”
Even some Democrats who stood with Reid on Wednesday seemed to be hoping for time.
“We’re not there yet,” Kennedy said.
“And we hope that we can get there. But we should not misrepresent that there is still a great deal of additional work that has to be done to be able to achieve this objective.”
By Mike Madden, Daniel Gonzalez