In a truly roundabout way, the immigration deal was sunk by John McCain.
The Arizona senator, one of the key dealmakers and supporters of the measure, voted for cloture — cutting off debate to proceed to a vote — of course. But the controversial bill was so delicate that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to bring the bill up with a controversial “clay pigeon” amendment show. The obscure procedure was leadership’s last best hope to keep the bill from being changed in any way that would make supporters jump ship.
On Wednesday, the Senate considered several amendments under the clay-pigeon setup, beginning with the ones considered relatively easy to defeat. But they included an amendment by Max Baucus (D., Mont.) that would prohibit “Real ID,” contending that digital ID cards represent an unreasonable government intrusion into Americans’ private lives. But when the 15 minutes of voting had passed, the Baucus amendment still had enough votes to avoid being tabled, or killed.
Holding the vote open for 40 minutes, Reid and deal supporters put extraordinary effort into arm-twisting to table Baucus’s amendment, which threatened the delicate balance they thought they had a handle on. Reid and bill backers found themselves one vote short of the 50 needed to dismiss Baucus’s amendment. There were two senators missing: Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, still recovering from brain surgery, and McCain, out of town at a fundraising event.
Had McCain been there, he would have been the 50th vote, the amendment would been killed, and the clay-pigeon process could have continued. With that, perhaps, the bill might have been able to scrape together the 60 votes needed for cloture. Without the 50th vote, Reid released the senators, and Baucus’s amendment survived, 52-45.
As it was, no further amendments could be considered before cloture, as unanimous consent was required to move to another one. Opponents were quick to object.
“Reid’s staff knew at that point, they were toast,” said a GOP Senate aide. “I don’t think Reid knew it. He asked what they could do at that point [on the floor], and somebody on our side yelled, ‘You can’t do anything! See you at cloture!’”
And the procedural issues continued even after the Baucus amendment. Wednesday evening, Reid indicated that he wanted to split Thursday morning’s debate time between Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. It fell to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) to point out that Reid was setting up a “debate” between two supporters of the bill.
There was extraordinary coordination and cooperation among senators opposing the immigration deal. Several, including Sessions, Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), John Cornyn (R., Tex.), and Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.), and David Vitter (R., La.) got together for strategy meetings several times a day. “I felt like I was running into Vitter and Coburn every time I got up from my desk,” said one Senate aide.
One vote may have been swayed by radio-talk-show host Sean Hannity, who interviewed Ohio Senator George Voinovich Wednesday afternoon. Voinovich began by declaring, “I’m all for the Fairness Doctrine, whatever that is,” went on to assert that Kay Bailey Hutchison’s amendment had passed when it had been tabled … and the interview somehow managed to get even worse from there.
“We were laughing about that all day,” said a press secretary for one of the opposing senators. “It was a wake-up call for him. I couldn’t believe somebody didn’t rip the phone out of his hands after it started to go south. If I were his press secretary, I would turn in my papers.” Hannity’s influence on the debate no doubt just gives fuel to the Fairness Doctrine fire in the Senate among members hoping to muzzle right-wing talk-radio influence.
The immigration-bill fallout could have been considerable for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who found himself in the odd position of endorsing procedures and rules for debating the bill that many in his caucus felt limited their rights. “There are members who are very upset about this,” said one GOP staff member who didn’t want to be named. “Usually all it takes to stop the leadership from backing a bill is for [moderate Maine Senators Olympia ]Snowe or [Susan] Collins to sneeze. On this one, more than half the conference opposes it and the leadership throws us under the bus.”
McConnell voted against cloture, but was reported to be one of the last to vote.