Reform boosters, not least Kennedy himself, have repeatedly made the point that if a comprehensive reform bill is to succeed it must do so as a result of bipartisan support in both the Senate and House of Representatives. This if for no other reason than there is certain to be equally bipartisan opposition ranging from passive to virulent.
“Only a bipartisan bill will become law. There is a lot of common ground, especially in the need to strengthen our borders and enforce our laws, though important differences remain to be resolved,” Kennedy said in reaction to President Bush’s recent immigration speech, delivered at the border with Mexico in Yuma, Arizona
“Now what is needed is a good faith effort by all concerned to forge the right kind of compromise that honors our commitment to our security, our commitment to families, and our commitment to our humanity,” he said.
Not all the critics of a radical overhaul in the nation’s currently chaotic immigration system are to be found in the ranks of the Republican Party.
Some Democrats, particularly those who hail from the so-called red states, are more than a little skittish when comprehensive reform is mentioned.
In the Senate, there are several Democrats whose support for the kind of bill that last year had the names Kennedy and McCain attached is seen as unlikely, if not entirely out of the question.
So in order to secure the three fifths, or 60 votes, necessary to end debate and force a vote on a reform bill in the Senate, Kennedy and fellow reform minded-Democrats could well need as many as 15 Republican colleagues to row in behind them.
Though John McCain has stepped back from co-sponsorship of the latest and keenly anticipated Kennedy-inspired bill, his favorable vote for a well-crafted measure is expected.
But the senior senator from Arizona will likely keep his distance from the senior senator from Massachusetts in terms of being publicly identified with such a proposal.
Nevertheless, Kennedy will need a Republican name atop any bill in order to persuade potentially supportive, but clearly wary, GOP senators to line up behind the kind of measure that can ultimately make it to President Bush’s desk.
“The senator is working with a whole bunch,” said spokeswoman Laura Capps.
The leader of the bunch would appear to be Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina.
Graham, who is seen as being politically close to John McCain, is not a newcomer to the reform debate but is poised to become newly prominent.
Graham joined Kennedy, as well as Democrats Bob Menendez and Ken Salazar at a recent gathering of evangelical Christian leaders who are supportive of reform. The religious leaders were representatives of Hispanic evangelical churches and Southern Baptists.
“Senators Kennedy, Salazar, and Menendez continue their efforts to negotiate a bill with their colleagues in the Senate,” a statement from Kennedy’s office said after the meeting.
Graham was not mentioned in the statement but his presence was important in what was a lineup tailored to fit the gathering. Menendez from New Jersey and Salazar from Colorado are obvious bridges to the Hispanic community, regardless of religious denomination, while Graham is a Baptist from the South.
Graham passes easy muster with conservatives on many issues. He sits in the seat that was occupied for decades by the late Senator Strom Thurmond.
When he was running to succeed Thurmond in the 2002 election, Graham accused his Republican opponent, Alex Sanders, of being a supporter of the liberal agenda of Tom Daschle, Hillary Rodham Clinton – and Edward Kennedy.
Critically, however, comprehensive immigration reform doesn’t fit neatly into either a liberal or a conservative slot.
It’s supported by most liberal members of Congress but also conservatives who see reform as being important for business and the economy. Graham would appear to fall into that latter category.
When the McCain/Kennedy bill was first revealed to the world as the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005, Graham was a named Republican Co-sponsor along with Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, now, like McCain, one of his party’s presidential hopefuls.
Graham isn’t running for the White House and is thus further removed from the kind of pressures that have lately made McCain, and indeed Brownback, step back a ways from the reform battle’s front lines.
But a statement from Graham on his website is a reminder of how nervous the reform cause makes even sympathetic legislators.
“Legislation should include better border security, employment verification requirements, punishment for those in the country illegally and a guest worker program,” Graham states.
“Both amnesty and the idea we are going to deport 12 million people should be rejected as unworkable, impractical solutions.”
Graham isn’t giving much away here beyond a guest worker program. He dismisses deportation but does not specify a path to earned legalization, something that would be expected in any bill with Ted Kennedy’s name attached to it.
To get to the senate floor with any real chance of success, a reform bill will have to pass through the sluice gates of the Senate Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship. Graham is a member of the full committee though not the subcommittee whose Republican members are senators John Cornyn of Texas, Charles Grassley from Iowa, John Kyl of Arizona and Alabama’s Jeff Sessions.
In addition to these four and Graham there four other GOP members of the full judiciary panel: Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, Orrin Hatch from Utah, the aforementioned Sam Brownback from Kansas and Tom Coburn from Oklahoma.
This Republican grouping that will have enormous influence in the shaping of any reform bill deemed suitable for the president’s signature. Nobody knows that better than Senator Kennedy.