McConnell firmly ambiguous on immigration

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell used Fox News Wednesday to emphasize his ambiguous approach to the Senate’s pending immigration bill, one day after he seemed to support the controversial measure.

“I’m undecided about the bill, but I’m not undecided about the problem,” McConnell said in a Fox News interview Wednesday.

The bill “will come to the Senate floor,” he said, indicating that he will not try to force all GOP senators to block the start of the Senate’s floor debate, he told Martha McCallum on Fox’s “Happening Now.”

“Will it fix the problem? I think we don’t know that at the beginning of the debate … [which] will occur over multiple weeks in June in all likelihood,” he said.

“What he’s doing now isn’t really telling us what he’s going to do” once the floor debate starts in June, responded Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

McConnell’s public welcome for a floor debate is “not incompatible with killing this thing because it does give senators a way to demonstrate [in the debate] to their business constituents or farmers or to Hispanic voters that they’re engaged on this issue and want to deal with it, and then with a heavy heart, they can say, ‘At the end, this isn’t good enough,'” Krikorian said.

That’s what happened in the last fight over immigration during President George W. Bush’s term.

“Mr. President, today is a day of victory and defeat,” McConnell said in a floor speech that sought to unite his divided caucus after he successfully defeated the 2007 amnesty bill.

“We can say with pride that the failure of this bill was not a failure of will or hard work or good intentions … and we can be sure that many good people will step forward again to offer their intelligence, understanding, and their ‘tireless efforts’ when the time comes to face this issue again,” he said.

“That time was not now. It was not the people’s will. And they were heard,” McConnell concluded.

This time around, “if he stands aside and lets people draw their own conclusions and votes [no] at the last minute, that represents implicit support for the bill,” said Krikorian.

Silence means “he’s not opposing it, even if at the last minute, as the clock is winding down, he votes no,” he added.

The critical vote will come when Democrat try to amass 60 votes to complete the Senate’s June debate on the immigration bill, said Krikorian.

McConnell’s May 22 statements were notably more ambiguous than his May 21 comments about the bill, which will add up to 30 million low-skill immigrants to the voter rolls by 2035.

“The Judiciary Committee has not in any fundamental way undone the agreement reached by the eight senators, so I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get a bill we can pass here in the Senate,” McConnell said.

“It’s my intention … [to] see if it we’re able to pass a bill that actually moves the ball in the right direction,” he said.

Those comments prompted furious protest from conservatives.

Mark Levin, the conservative radio host, argued that McConnell is covertly backing the bill in favor of the business groups. “It is obvious McConnell has been orchestrating this from the shadows,” Levin said in an email to Breitbart.com.

“From encouraging Marco Rubio to join this silly ‘Gang’ to smoothing the way for a vote for this monstrous bill, McConnell’s pushing it,” he said.

Those criticisms are useful because they can prod McConnell to publicly deny his support for the bill, said one activist who opposes the bill.

The immigration bill creates a strategic problem for McConnell — whether to fight or to back the bill, either openly or covertly.

A covert approach has the advantage of minimizing complaints from the wealthy pro-immigration coalition of progressives, ethnic lobbies and employers or the popular pro-reform coalition of conservatives and liberals.

“Part of [McConnell’s] job is raising a gigantic bag of money for Republican senators elections, and the money is all behind amnesty,” said Krikorian.

But numerous polls shows that the swing-voting public, and especially conservative voters, back the curbs sought by activists like Krikorian.

A May poll by Rasmussen reports showed that 38 percent of adults want an immigration decrease, 26 percent want an increase in immigration once the border is secured, and 35 percent want no change or were not sure.

People who earn less than $30,000 per year back a decrease by 44 percent to 15 percent, while an increase is backed 44 percent to 13 percent by people who earn more that $200,000.

Intensity is also higher among the middle-class and lower-income people. For example, 49 percent of the over-$200,000 group were not sure or wanted no change, while 41 percent of the under-$30,000 were not sure or wanted no change, said the report.

But the business groups have spent a huge amount of money to shape the immigration debate in Washington, and to push for more immigrant employees and consumers. They have much influence in the established media and among Republicans in D.C., and can provided much-needed campaign funds.

Other senators are hedging their bets, too, said Kirkorian.

For example, Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch won a few controversial amendments from the Democratic leaders on the markup committee May 20, but still said he might vote against the bill during the floor vote.

The almost 900-page bill is expected to provide an opportunity for legalization to at least 11 million illegal immigrants, bring in another 20 million people — few of whom will have university degrees — over the next decade, accelerate the future inflow of immigrants’ relatives and increase the supply of agricultural laborers.

The bill will also boost the annual inflow of blue-collar and professional guest-workers above 1 million.

The total cost to taxpayers is unclear.

The immediate amnesty of roughly 11 million low-skill workers is expected to spur benefit spending by $6.3 trillion over 50 years, according to the Heritage Foundation. Additional inflows of low-skill workers will boost that price tag, but advocates for the bill say its various costs will be offset by economic gains.

The immigration bill is powered by an alliance of pro-immigration Democrats and pro-business GOP senators.

In an April 7 interview on the “Meet The Press” Sunday talk show. Graham said that “if we’re reasonable with 11 million [illegal immigrants], if we all give them a pathway to citizenship … then the Democratic Party has to give us the guest worker program to help our economy.”

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