For Saxby Chambliss, it was boos. For Johnny Isakson, it was bricks.
The heated 2007 immigration-reform debate has left lasting memories for both of Georgia’s Republican U.S. Senators and lessons for proposals now unfolding with similar fanfare and circumstances: a bipartisan coalition of senators and a supportive president working on a plan.
Some things are different now, notably Republicans’ need to overcome huge deficits among Hispanic voters. But no one expects getting an immigration overhaul through Congress to be a breeze, especially in the House.
The time nearly six years ago, when Chambliss and Isakson helped draft a bill that they ultimately opposed and President George W. Bush traveled to Georgia in a failed attempt to drum up support, provides an instructive backdrop as this debate proceeds.
In Georgia and elsewhere, the conservative backlash was fierce. Chambliss felt it when he heard a smattering of boos at the state GOP convention when he brought up a guest-worker program. Isakson’s office was flooded with phone calls and mail, including bricks intended to be used for a wall at the Mexican border. Isakson kept one brick for posterity, said his deputy chief of staff, Joan Kirchner.
“It was something which seemed to be kind of a misstep and misreading of the public,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “Once they got a huge blowback from constituents they quickly shifted their positions.”
Since then, even smaller efforts such as the DREAM Act for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children failed, and President Barack Obama committed little effort in his first term to nudging Congress on a big deal. But last week was a hopeful one for advocates of immigration reform, as a bipartisan group of senators released an outline of a plan and Obama gave a major speech urging it forward — though some conservative critics accused him of dragging it to the left by not emphasizing border security.
Much has changed politically in six years, and some of the GOP impetus behind immigration reform comes from the fact that Obama won Hispanic voters by 71 percent to 27 percent in November, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Bush made immigration a second-term priority, but the House and Senate could not agree on legislation in 2006 – before the Democrats took over both houses of Congress and changed the political calculus.
In 2007 a bipartisan group of senators including Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., toiled with administration officials including Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. They agreed on a 380-page bill in May to allow instant legalization and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and additional security on the Mexican border.
The bill picked up an Isakson-proposed component called a “trigger.” Any path to citizenship must come only after it is triggered by border-security milestones. It was seen then, as now, as crucial for compromise on the issue.
Chambliss helped develop the guest-worker program in the bill, a critical piece for agricultural interests.
The day after the bill arrived in the Senate, Isakson and Chambliss appeared in a photo on the front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with other negotiators, including Kennedy. All were smiling.
Fraternizing with the Senate’s “liberal lion” did not play well back home. The next day, when Chambliss brought up guest workers at the state GOP convention, a few members of the crowd started to boo.
“Everybody just recoiled from anything that Kennedy was supporting,” said Tom Perdue, Chambliss’ longtime campaign manager.
“He never got a chance to say, ‘Here is what we are trying to do.’ The hard-core grass roots of the Republican Party are the ones who go to those conventions, and all they reacted to was a picture in the paper that Saxby was for amnesty. It couldn’t have been anything further from the truth than that.”
Chambliss pointed out that only a few people in the crowd booed him, and one later called to apologize.
“But that shows how upset people were — that’s pretty unusual,” Chambliss said.
Senate switchboards were overwhelmed with constituent calls.
Isakson’s “office received more than 27,000 phone calls from Georgians and 99 percent of them were passionately opposed to the proposal and some went beyond passion into downright anger,” Kirchner wrote in an email.
Close friends who usually vote alike, Isakson and Chambliss penned a joint AJC op-ed article, carefully worded to withhold judgment on the final bill but explaining why they helped write it.
“We could have chosen to sit on the sidelines and simply complain about the other party, but instead we have fought hard in a difficult political environment to ensure that the principles of our constituents in Georgia are included,” the senators wrote.
Bush kept the pressure on, including a late May trip to a training site for immigration officers in Glynco during which he implored Congress to “fix this system now.”
But the opposing pressure was too powerful, including in the conservative media.
“Talk radio is running America,” U.S. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, then the Republican whip, told reporters. “We have to deal with that problem.”
In June Chambliss and Isakson voted against the bill, which only garnered 46 of the required 60 votes to break a filibuster.
“We’ve listened,” Chambliss told reporters.
Today, “I think people are starting more and more to understand if we’re going to get the Hispanic vote we can’t be anti-Hispanics,” Chambliss said last week.
Peter Siavelis, a Wake Forest University political science professor who studies immigration reform, said that view is catching on in the Senate because its members have more national prominence. The House will be a tougher sell.
“A lot of Republican House members are not as vulnerable as people might make them seem,” Siavelis said. “Latinos are not going to make them into swing districts. … So the threat of being unseated by a primary competitor to the right is much greater.”
Republicans do have a star egging them on in U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, widely seen as a contender for the presidency in 2016. Rubio has helped negotiate an outline similar to the failed 2007 effort and has been aggressively pitching it to conservative media, repeating that without a new law we have “de facto amnesty.”
Rubio went on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show on Tuesday and was received kindly. By Thursday’s show, though, Limbaugh said he wanted to dispel any perception that he was in favor of the plan.
“I was not signaling that he converted me to amnesty,” Limbaugh said.
Erick Erickson, of Macon and the popular conservative blog RedState, wrote a post called “I Don’t Like Marco Rubio’s Plan.” Rubio had a rebuttal on the site within hours.
This time Isakson and Chambliss, who recently announced he will retire at the end of his term, are not involved with the bill negotiations and are expressing a mixture of hope in the process and concern about the details. No photo ops with legendary liberals are scheduled.
Isakson said he is encouraged that the proposed bill will go through the committee process rather than be fast-tracked to the floor like in 2007, though he was far from offering his full support:
“Congress needs to be given the time to try to work its will.”
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