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Senate's odd couple times six

An unlikely coalition of 12 forged the `grand bargain' at the heart of the immigration bill. It faces a test this week.

June 03, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The vote was close. A cluster of senators from both parties, authors of the immigration bill under debate, hovered over the clerk tallying the votes on an amendment that could bring down their fragile compromise legislation.

At 45 to 45, Arizona's Jon Kyl, the lead Republican architect of the bill, put his hand to his chin. At 48 to 45, he crossed his arms and bit his lip. Ken Salazar, the Colorado Democrat who helped write the bill, leaned in.

The count stopped: 49 to 48. The amendment had passed, and their bill looked doomed. The bipartisan team sprang into action.

Kyl shot across the room to urge two Republicans still in the chamber to switch their votes. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) targeted Democrat Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, who listened, hesitated as Kyl drew close, then gestured to the clerk to change his vote.

In the center of the room, Salazar and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) kept their eyes locked on the clerk until he called out the new tally: 48 to 49.

They had won.

In deeply divided Washington, the coalition behind the Senate immigration bill is unusual and -- so far -- unusually effective. The lawmakers, who span the political spectrum from deeply conservative to passionately liberal, spent hundreds of hours together in Senate conference rooms writing the 628-page immigration bill, phrase by painstaking phrase.

They endured stony silence and denunciations shouted by colleagues. Some members of the coalition defected, unsettled by the final bill, but a dozen stuck with it. At a time of abrasive partisanship, they forged a compromise on one of the most contentious issues of the day.

That commitment will be tested this week as other senators target the "grand bargain" at the heart of the bill: Democrats get a path to legal status for 12 million illegal immigrants; Republicans get a new way to award green cards that tilts toward skilled and educated immigrants.

The 12 senators, who have dubbed themselves the "grand bargainers" and are evenly divided by party, swore a rare bipartisan blood oath and promised to defend that trade-off from amendments. If either side of the trade-off crumbled, members said their coalition would too, and with it a bill widely seen as the last chance for years to fix a broken immigration system.

"If we had not gotten together as Republicans and Democrats to develop this bipartisan consensus," Kyl said, "we can be assured that there would not be a bill passed this year and probably not next year."

Led by an odd couple

With a full palette of personalities and political leanings, the coalition is an unlikely team with an even unlikelier pair of leaders.

Kyl, 65, has a precise, lawyerly mien. A solid conservative, he's intense, quiet and prefers policy over the flash of politics. He can be stubborn and flare into impatience when asked a question he considers stupid.

Kennedy, the lead Democrat, is a liberal's liberal. A silver-maned political lion elected to the Senate in 1962, the garrulous 75-year-old can work the levers of Congress as well as he works a room. When things don't go his way, he's not above a display of fiery bombast, delivered full-volume in a Boston brogue that seems to vibrate the Senate chamber.

Like many odd couples, Kyl and Kennedy -- indeed, the coalition as a whole -- had a matchmaker: the White House.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez began meeting with Republicans in January to see whether they could develop a consensus on immigration. In particular, they courted Georgia's Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both of whom opposed last year's Senate immigration bill.

Chertoff and Gutierrez also met with senators who had played a prominent role in shaping that legislation, including Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who supported the final version of the bill, and Kyl and John Cornyn (R-Texas), who had not.

The Cabinet officials listened, cajoled and prodded.

They sought out Kennedy too, testing his parameters for a bill.

When the sides finally began negotiating in early April, they sat down for three or four hours a day, three days a week, for seven weeks.

"There were moments when I thought the talks would never end," Isakson said.

Over bottles of mineral water in a wood-paneled suite in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, senators would start with a four- or five-page outline of general concepts and work down to tediously granular specifics: How would they certify a worker's legal status? What were the implications of doing that? How would they actually set up a system in the time frame they had marked?

Those sessions forged a bond that Chambliss, who has served in Congress for 13 years, calls "absolutely unusual."

"You've got some ultraliberals and some ultraconservatives and some middle-of-the-road folks," he said, "and we've got a central consensus plan that not everybody is going to be happy with. That tells me the Senate is working the way it's supposed to."

Rough patches

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