Dorgan's Poison Pill

WASHINGTON — Democrat Byron Dorgan, who seldom has tasted legislative success during 15 years in the Senate, scored a dubious victory last week. He was able to insert a poison pill in the immigration reform bill that aimed at emasculating the essential guest worker program. The 49 to 48 vote that passed Dorgan’s amendment included surprising support from two prominent first-term senators: Jim DeMint, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, and Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate from Illinois.

Dorgan pushed his killer amendment by voicing the Great Plains populism of his home state of North Dakota, but the measure was the product of organized labor. DeMint, normally counted on to oppose anything with the union label, voted for the Dorgan amendment admittedly for the sole purpose of killing the immigration bill. Obama’s vote was even more surprising, considering his participation in the closed-door bipartisan drafting of the immigration compromise that actually had secured a major change.

The Dorgan amendment is a classic poison pill: designed to kill, not improve, the bill. Its passage makes resurrection of immigration reform all the more difficult. Decisive votes by DeMint and Obama were not appreciated by the bipartisan group that had crafted the bargain intended to secure America’s borders while permitting an orderly flow of temporary workers.

Dorgan in Senate debate did not disguise the origin of his amendment, reading into the record endorsements by labor leaders. However, as one of the Senate’s non-stop talkers wedded to class struggle rhetoric, Dorgan tried to make the nation’s unprecedented prosperity seem like the depths of the Great Depression. “As long as there are employers who are willing to put downward pressure on income for American workers,” he declared, “we are going to see people at the bottom of the economic ladder in this country continuing to struggle.”

That did not sit well with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, principal Democratic sponsor of the compromise. Asserting that “the chicken pluckers” will not “pay $10 or $15 an hour” for homegrown employees, Kennedy asked: “Who is the senator from North Dakota trying to fool?” The liberal lion of the Senate roared that Dorgan “doesn’t care more about American workers than I do.”

Teddy Kennedy had no trouble disobeying labor’s marching orders by voting against Dorgan, but only 10 other Democratic senators had the courage to follow that course. Sen. Hillary Clinton, the presidential front-runner, as expected walked the union line. Obama’s vote for the poison pill was unexpected because he had participated, uninvited, one time in the bipartisan negotiating process. He had demanded and won a provision permitting immigrants to stay on the job after being designated “not employable” by the government under the new system until their appeals were exhausted. Obama’s support for the Dorgan amendment then infuriated Republicans in the negotiating group who had opposed the concession to the presidential candidate.

DeMint was but one of 10 Republicans who went with organized labor’s killer amendment, but he was special for two reasons. First, when an earlier version of the Dorgan amendment lost 49 to 48, DeMint voted the other way. Second, DeMint openly admitted he changed his vote only to kill the bill.

Sen. Jon Kyl, the conservative chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, was not pleased. Having risked the wrath of anti-immigration forces back home in Arizona to collaborate with Teddy Kennedy in the interests of solving the immigration problem, he was not impressed by DeMint’s candor. “I didn’t care for it,” Kyl told me. “He voted for the amendment to kill the bill. It was a poison pill.”

Removing the poison will not be easy, but a start was made this week with unusual effort from President Bush. When Bush on Tuesday attended the weekly luncheon of Republican senators for the second time in his presidency, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich e-mailed Senate staffers that “the Bush administration is determined to force [the immigration bill] through with raw power.” Gingrich sent confrontational talking points for the aides to give their senators when they met the president. There is no sign any of them were used Tuesday during a civil encounter that perhaps promises a better performance ahead by the Senate.