The Immigration Two-Step

THE IMMIGRATION TWO-STEP….So what happened on the immigration bill? The nickel answer is that Harry Reid and Bill Frist agreed on a compromise measure that had broad bipartisan support in the Senate, but Reid wanted assurances that Frist was willing to control his own caucus and deliver the bill they had shaken hands on. After all, as Ron Brownstein points out, Republicans have made a habit of reneging on agreements like this before:

Repeatedly in recent years, the Senate has forged bipartisan agreements on issues such as energy policy, the Medicare prescription drug plan and renewal of the Patriot Act, only to see much more conservative approaches emerge from conference committees with the House.

Only an idiot gets taken to the cleaners time after time in exactly the same way by exactly the same people, and Reid isn’t an idiot. When it became clear that conservative Republicans were intent on undermining the compromise with amendments, Reid asked Frist to demonstrate his good faith by reining in his colleagues. Frist refused, and even veteran Republican vote-counter Orrin Hatch admitted that Reid was justified in viewing this as a surreptitious betrayal: “The Democrats know the amendments would pass,” he said in an interview. “They lost in [the Judiciary] committee, but they would pass on the floor.”

The next step in this familiar dance would have come in conference with the House. Frist’s usual tactic is to deliberately appoint weak negotiators from the Senate who will cave in to hardline House negotiators, producing a bill that looks nothing like the original deal. Time magazine describes what happened behind closed doors:

Reid had tried to get some kind of guarantee from Frist that Republican Senators would support only the Senate version in conference, and over the last 24 hours, Sen. John McCain worked to sign colleagues on for just such an assurance. Frist’s chief of staff, Eric Ueland, tried to be reassuring. ?The Senate will defend the Senate position,? he said. But Reid wanted more than that. ?We have no safety net here,? says a top Reid aide, ?The Republicans have the President, the Senate and the House.? In negotiations that lasted all night, Reid’s staff insisted on a say in the make-up of the conference committee, but Frist wouldn’t budge.

In other words, “trust us.” But Frist’s actions made it crystal clear that the standard double cross was in the works: agree on a deal, water it down with amendments, gut it in conference, and then eventually present Democrats with a fait accompli: an up-or-down vote on a conference markup that looks nothing like the one Frist and Reid shook hands on. Democrats would then have the choice of either voting for a harsh and punitive bill they never agreed to or else filibustering it and getting tarred as obstructionists by gleeful Republicans ? aided and abetted by credulous editorial boards like this one.

But despite what the Washington Post thinks, what was at stake here wasn’t the compromise bill that Reid and Frist agreed to ? a bill that might very well have been a decent step forward. That was just flash for the rubes, and Frist knew it perfectly well. Pro-immigration groups who are complaining about Reid’s hardball would be wise to figure this out too.

When someone has suckered you enough times, you demand guarantees before you’ll make another deal with him. If all you get is sweet talk, you know the fix is in and you walk away. Reid walked away, and it was the right thing to do.