WASHINGTON — In 2001, Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah introduced the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — better known as the DREAM Act — in the Senate. The legislation would’ve made it possible for the children of illegal immigrants to gain permanent residency if they stayed out of trouble and went to school or joined the military. The idea was that the country shouldn’t make kids pay for their parents’ migration decisions, and shouldn’t deny the economy skilled workers that it has paid to educate or deny the military eager recruits who want to defend the nation they’ve grown up in.
Hatch’s measure quickly proved popular among his Republican colleagues. His initial co-sponsors included Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Larry E. Craig of Idaho, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Richard Lugar of Indiana. When Hatch reintroduced the bill in 2003, Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado joined the list. The legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 16 to 3, with seven of 10 Republicans voting in favor.
More than a decade later, the DREAM Act still hasn’t been signed into law, partly because of the vagaries of the Senate and the political calendar. After the legislation passed the Judiciary Committee, it was delayed for various procedural reasons, and then it was crowded out by President George W. Bush’s effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
But the Republican Party also has done a near-total flip-flop on the idea. In December 2010, during the lame-duck session that followed the midterm election, a tighter, more stringent DREAM Act passed the House and came to the Senate floor. Fifty-two Democrats and three Republicans voted for it. (Two of those Republicans — Sens. Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — lost to tea party primary challengers earlier in 2010. The third, Lugar, lost to a tea partyer this year.) The 55 “ayes,” however, weren’t sufficient to overcome a GOP-led filibuster.
In the past week or so, another version of this story has played out at almost comically high speed. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida proposed a weakened successor to the DREAM Act that would help young illegal immigrants who go to school or enter the military remain in the country, albeit without a path to citizenship or permanent residence. Days later, President Obama proposed something similar through an executive order to stop deportations for that group of immigrants.
The Republican reaction? Rubio and presidential candidate Mitt Romney have criticized Obama for acting unilaterally, and a Rubio aide confirmed to the Huffington Post “that the senator may not introduce his bill because he believes the politics are now more difficult.”
The aide is almost certainly right: The internal politics of the Republican Party make it very difficult for GOP lawmakers to vote for anything that Obama publicly supports. But that raises the question: What exactly are Democrats supposed to do to compromise with Republicans?
As Democrats learned during the DREAM Act’s first decade, proposing policies that Republicans have previously proposed doesn’t work. Since 2009, Democrats have sought to find middle ground with a health-care plan based on an individual mandate (which Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island introduced in the 1990s), a cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions (which McCain introduced in 2003), and tax-cut-based stimulus plans (which Bush signed in 2008). No go.
Backing policies that Republicans currently support hasn’t proved much more effective. When Obama put his weight behind legislation that would create a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission, a number of the Republicans who supported that bill, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, opposed it.
Obama then created the Simpson-Bowles commission through an executive order. After it finished, Republicans criticized the president as being cool in his initial reaction to the panel’s deficit-reduction plan (which Republicans also didn’t support)
So, when the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six proposed its version of the Simpson-Bowles plan, Obama called the plan “good news” and signaled that he would sign it. A Senate Republican leadership aide promptly e-mailed Politico’s Mike Allen to say, “Background guidance: The president killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it. 2) Hailing the fact that it increases taxes. 3) Saying it mirrors his own plan.”
As for simply acting on his own, that’s what the president tried to do with Rubio’s DREAM-lite, and Republicans quickly attacked him as making bipartisan cooperation on the issue harder.
To recap: When Democrats endorse ideas Republican pioneered, that doesn’t lead to bipartisanship. When they endorse ideas Republicans currently support, that doesn’t lead to bipartisanship. And when they act on their own, that’s too partisan. So what, exactly, are they supposed to do?