Senators Look at Past Failures for Lessons on Immigration Overhaul
WASHINGTON — As eight senators in a bipartisan group look ahead to a broad immigration overhaul, they are also looking back to 2006 and 2007 — the last time a major immigration measure was considered — as something of a reverse playbook.
Lesson 1? “Make sure you get out there and define what you’re trying to do,” said former Senator Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who, in 2007, was the minority whip when his chamber’s immigration efforts imploded. “Don’t forget to pay attention to the message, and don’t let the media define what you’re trying to do.”
It is a tip that Mr. Lott says he has communicated to the staff of Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican involved in the current effort, and so far Mr. Rubio seems to be heeding the advice. In recent weeks, he has focused on conservative media powerhouses, tirelessly wooing influential voices on the right like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.
“The outreach by Marco Rubio has been very positive,” Mr. Lott said. “He’s very good at explaining what he wants to do.”
Getting out ahead by articulating their immigration principles, as the group did in a Monday news conference, is only one of the ways the senators hope to learn from the mistakes of the past. This time, they said, they are capitalizing on a promising political environment, using more conciliatory language, and trying to harness media outlets to their advantage. They also plan to move their legislation through the Judiciary Committee, a step not taken in 2007 and one that helped doom the bill, and are working more closely with businesses and labor unions to make sure the two can also reach a compromise.
“Our timing is right,” said Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “The election results are still fresh in the minds of my Republican colleagues and they don’t want to go through this again.”
President George W. Bush said in 2009 that it was “a mistake” to have pushed for changes to Social Security, rather than immigration, immediately after the 2004 election. By the time he took on immigration late in his second term, he was a lame duck president, weakened by the war in Iraq and facing dissent within his party.
“By his own admission, President Bush made a strategic error in not pushing the issue right after his re-election,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “President Obama is not making the same mistake. He still has a lot of political capital to spend.”
In the wake of the 2012 presidential election, where Mr. Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney came with the help of 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, those on all sides of the immigration effort believe the climate is ripe for another attempt.
And, at least in the early stages, they are taking steps to reach across the aisle, even with the words they choose.
“The most important lesson I took way from 2006 and 2007 is that people had no faith that there wouldn’t be future waves of illegal immigrants,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat of New York in the Senate’s bipartisan immigration group.
To show that he is serious about an overhaul, he explained, he is especially conscious of the language he uses; Mr. Schumer now refers to “illegal immigrants,” a term preferred by the right and an acknowledgment that the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country did, in fact, break the law.
In a similar linguistic concession, Mr. Rubio, during Monday’s immigration news conference, referred to the “undocumented” workers, a term generally preferred by Democrats and loathed by his party’s conservative wing.
In 2007, in an attempt to save time and reach a deal, the Senate bypassed the Judiciary Committee and brought the legislation straight to the floor. At the time, the senators who drafted the bill tried to band together to vote down any amendments that changed the substance of their compromise, an agreement that broke down. Several controversial amendments, including one that then-Senator Obama supported, ultimately led to the bill’s collapse.
“What we’re doing now is we’re going to put it through committee,” Mr. Schumer said. “When the bill gets through committee, it will be battle-tested and we will be prepared for the floor in a better way.”
The group is also considering again trying to maintain a large voting bloc, to squash any amendments they believe could kill their bill.
“I think we have to unless there’s something that we both agree to,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said when asked about such a possibility at an immigration panel on Wednesday. “It’s going to be fragile, as these kinds of things are, and so we will have to take some tough votes in order to keep it intact.”
Finally, even business and labor interests — who historically come down on opposite sides of how to handle the future flow of legal immigrants — are currently working among themselves and with the Senate in an attempt to reach a compromise.
“We have had discussions with both labor — the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the S.E.I.U. — and business,” including with Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and leaders of other groups, Mr. Schumer said Monday.
“And in fact while we’ve been negotiating these principles, they’ve been sitting talking to one another,” he added. “They are making really good progress, much better than in 2009.”
Mr. Lott said that the collapse of an immigration overhaul in 2007 was “one of the most embarrassing moments that I experienced in the Senate,” and that the memories were still vivid — the way conservative talk radio turned on him, the angry phone calls flooding his office from around the country every morning, the handful of death threats.
Watching the immigration debate take shape now, he said, he is heartened to watch Mr. Rubio and others aggressively make their case in the press — something he wishes he had done better six years ago.
“I’d been in the Congress 34 years by then — I should have known better,” Mr. Lott said. “I was just trying to help move this thing along, but I should have paid better attention to the message part of it.”