It takes hard work to squander the kind of political clout Democrats have in this Congress, but they have managed quite nicely as the recent debacle with the defense appropriations bill eloquently demonstrates. Even though Democrats control 59 seats in the Senate, they could not avoid a Republican filibuster of a bill that has had smooth sailing for 48 years. This effectively kills all hope of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or passing the Dream Act—both measures that they were poised to attach to the legislation. (The Dream Act would have created a pathway to legal citizenship for children of undocumented aliens.)
But Democrats have no one but themselves—in particular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s arrogance and ObamaCare’s miscalculation—to blame.
This is not to suggest that Republicans behaved well in any of this. They didn’t. As usual, they demagogued both issues, trotting out tired old tropes that are becoming boring even to refute.
Every one knows that it is only a matter of time before America throws Don’t Ask into the dustbin of history. All civilized countries already allow their gay members to openly serve in the military without any noticeable effect on their military readiness, unit cohesiveness, or any of the other things that Republicans get worked up about. Indeed, Israel arguably has the best fighting force in the world even though it has always allowed—indeed, required—gays to serve, as I wrote last year. Yet Republicans wanted a defense study to confirm everything everyone already knows before signing off on a repeal.
Don’t Ask, however, will eventually go given the growing and overwhelming public opposition to it—even in the military’s own ranks. That is not the case with the Dream Act on which Republicans have inflamed public opinion almost to a point of no return. They called the Dream Act—yawn!—amnesty, an accusation that Democrats deny. They shouldn’t. The Act, which would give children of illegal aliens who sign up for military service or obtain a college education a shot at citizenship, is amnesty. And there is nothing wrong with it.
In an age when everyone is vying for victimhood status, the Dream Act youth are among the few who are genuine victims. Their predicament is truly not their fault. They had no say in being brought to this country illegally. Many of them have no ties left to their home country, don’t speak its language, and don’t know its ways. They are in a legal no-man’s land, having built a hearth in a country where they don’t have an official home. Giving them legal status would be an easy call for anyone of goodwill—even those who want to slam the door shut on everyone else. Indeed, extending amnesty to children of undocumented aliens is not all that different from extending it to people fleeing persecution, something that our—and every free—country does.
But restrictionists have blinded themselves to all humanitarian considerations, regurgitating bogus talking points till they acquire an air of plausability. For example, they point out that the Dream Act would allow these children to pay in-state tuition in college, something that out-of-state American kids don’t get. But the reason that it is fair to extend the in-state rate to these kids and not others is that their parents for years have contributed to their state’s public colleges through sales, property and even income taxes.
Even more fallacious is the restrictionist argument that legalizing these kids will only encourage more illegal immigration. This sounds like an open admission that they have no intention of fixing the country’s broken immigration system, the root cause of the problem. The reason poor, unskilled aliens have to sneak into this country is that there are very few visas available for them to enter legally. And if they are lucky enough to get one, it doesn’t allow them to work in the country while applying for a green card or legal residency—unlike H1-B visas that high skilled workers use. The idea that there is some kind of line that unskilled workers could stand in and wait their turn to gain legal residency is a complete figment of the restrictionist imagination.
Nor is it the case that denying amnesty would make an iota of difference to future rates of illegal immigration. People come here to escape their economic destitution. It is far more preferable to them to eke out a living in this country illegally—than face slow starvation in their own. That their children will be denied legal status at some point in the future will make no palpable difference to folks confronting a life-and-death situation now.
Be that as it may, it was entirely predictable that Republicans would ignore all of this and make every effort to derail Don’t Ask and the Dream Act. But Democrats needed only one—one!—Republican vote to avoid a filibuster, apart from holding their coalition together. This was hardly a Herculean undertaking given that there were at least two Republicans—Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine—who were either wholly or partially sympathetic to the bill. They both represent the bluest of blue states and therefore had every incentive to go along with their Democratic colleagues. But Sen. Harry Reid’s refusal to entertain any more than three amendments to the bill when it is customary to consider scores—even hundreds—completely alienated the two senators. Some press reports suggest that Reid eventually relented, but it is inconceivable that Sen. Collins would go on the Senate floor and cite that as her main reason for not going along with the Democrats if he in fact had. Is it possible that instead of a victory he wanted an issue to stoke his home state, Nevada’s, sizeable Latino community to vote for him in November against those evil Republicans?
But if Harry Reid was the proximate cause of this bill’s demise, ObamaCare was the fundamental cause. The ugly, hardball tactics that Democrats deployed to shove this unpopular legislation down everyone’s throat have so poisoned the well on Capitol Hill that Democrats have no good will left to make strategic alliances on even reasonable legislation anymore. When a party has such huge majorities, even small gestures of reconciliation are enough to splinter the ranks of opponents and obtain cooperation. But Democrats played the game of our way or the highway with ObamaCare, ignoring warnings that this would render them completely impotent for the rest of President Obama’s term. Indeed, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina,who had been working with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York to craft comprehensive immigration reform, gave up in disgust in the wake of ObamaCare.
How ironic that a president who got elected on the promise of bipartisan comity has produced nothing but partisan rancor. And his signature legislation that was supposed to save America’s most vulnerable has begun by throwing them under the bus.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a
Forbes columnist. This article
originally appeared at Forbes.