McConnell Blamed for Defeat

There was lots of finger pointing after the failure of the immigration bill defeat last week, but one Republican, Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate, was particularly singled out.

McConnell had stood with Democratic Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid and President George W. Bush when they had agreed to bring back the bill to the floor. Most observers believed that having agreed to that plan, the votes must surely have been there to pass the legislation.

Not so. McConnell was missing in action during the debate, much to the chagrin of his deputy, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who shipped heavy punishment from the Rush Limbaugh crowd for his advocacy on behalf of the bill.

It got so bad that one leading Republican was heard to mutter that they were considering putting McConnell's face on a milk carton because no one could find him.

Bill watchers knew that McConnell needed to twist arms for it to pass. Key among the "soft" votes were the two Republican senators form Alaska who could easily have been put into the "yea" column by McConnell if he so wished, as illegal immigration hardly counts as a problem in the far north.

However, when the two Alaskan senators both voted nay the Republicans who had held the line knew the fight was over and that McConnell had failed to even basically try and defend the bill. Shortly afterwards Senator San Brownback, who had agreed to support the bill and at first voted aye, changed his vote to nay.

McConnell turned up on the day of the vote, however, and had no hesitation voting no against the bill despite his earlier advocacy of it. A profile in courage it was not.

Many reasons were advanced for McConnell's disappearance, not least the fact that he is up for re-election next year in Kentucky and could face a hard race, though most experts consider it unlikely he will be targeted.

Staffers Knew Bill's Fate

The night before Thursday's vote there was a farewell party for Noel Fahey, the departing Irish ambassador to the U.S. Many of the key players in the immigration debate were there to pay tribute to the popular ambassador who will next serve at the Vatican as Ireland's man there.

The view at the party, however, was that the legislation was in real trouble. While senators themselves were circumspect, rumors among staffers were rife that the bill was certainly down for defeat the next day.

Indeed The Washington Post the night before reported on its website that staffers had indicated strongly that the bill was certain to be defeated

As usual the scuttlebutt was right and the bill promptly plunged to defeat. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told associates that he had five Democratic votes that would switch to the yea side if the vote was close.

However, it never even looked like he would need them as the bill was defeated by 14 votes.

McCain's Courage Evident

The ink was hardly dry on the immigration defeat when the pundits began assessing it in terms of presidential politics.

The conventional wisdom was that Senator John McCain on the Republican side would be most damaged because of his advocacy of the bill.

However, in an extraordinary article in the National Review, bill opponent Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma hailed McCain's stance as the very definition of political courage, even though Coburn stated he disagreed with it because he opposed the bill.

"I hope the American people, at least, step back from the obsessive play-by-play pre-season election analysis and reflect on Senator McCain's actions for what I believe they were: one of the purest examples of political courage seen in Washington in a very, very long time," Coburn wrote.

It was an interesting take on events and further reinforced the sense that McCain is still one of only a handful of senators who has the political courage in his party to try and seek cross party support for a bill.

In the end McCain's ability to stand out from the pack and take unpopular positions may actually stand him in good stead in the primary season as Americans begin to focus on what is clearly one of the most important elections in our lifetime.

Men of courage and commitment are few and far between in American life right now, and McCain is certainly one of the few who can display both.

What Now For Reform?

So what now for immigration? Most experts see a handful of measures coming up for debate in the remaining session.

Agricultural jobs, championed by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, will likely be raised, as will the H-IB and H-2B visa programs which affect the number of skilled and seasonal workers coming into America.

However, efforts by some hard right members to introduce a security only bill seem doomed to failure after the White House made it clear it is not interested.

Bush of all people has been most stung by the reverse. Having acted in good faith to have an immigration bill passed, he found his own party rebelling against him in a way which makes it clear his lame duck status has now begun.