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New York Times’ Michael Shear On The Beltway Insiders Working Quietly On Immigration Reform

Thursday, January 23, 2014
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HH: Joined now by Michael Shear, White House correspondent for the New York Times. Michael, I hope you’re not snowed in, in D.C. today.

MS: I think I can assure you that you’re much warmer than we are out here.

HH: I don’t even want to tell you what a beautiful day it is in Santa Barbara, so I won’t.

MS: Yeah, please don’t.

HH: Wonderful piece yesterday by you in the New York Times on immigration – Two Friends Reach Across The Aisle On Immigration is the piece. Would you give a quick summary of what the story was about before I probe a little bit deeper about the Republican side of this?

MS: Sure, no, I mean, it was essentially an effort to describe that even as a lot of these, this debate rages on at the level of lawmakers, that there are people that are staffers that are, have been around and been working on this issue for literally decades. And I focused on two in particular, one, a woman who had worked for Senator Kennedy for many years on this issue, a Democrat, and a woman who had worked for many years with Senator McCain. And both had kind of been rivals and worked, but at the same time worked with each other to try to figure out was there a way to come together on immigration. Now, you have them both working again in Washington in key posts. The Republican is working for John Boehner, the Speaker, and the Democrat is working for the White House. And so you have at least an opportunity for the two women who are obviously behind the scenes and not kind of out front, but at least they have a relationship that dates back something over a decade, and one that from all descriptions is based on trust and friendship, and that potentially, that’s something that could help some kind of compromise be reached.

HH: And what’s interesting, I took away from this two things. One, “Ms. Tallent, that’s John Boehner’s aide, and Miss Olavarria, that’s the White House aide, declined to be interviewed for this article. So they did not want to be on the record as to what they’re talking about. And number two, they are both, and this is not a condemnation, it’s simply a description, they are Beltway insiders talking to each other about an immigration issue which will be decided by outside the Beltway reaction to whatever their work product is.

MS: Right.

HH: Isn’t that a process that’s been tried repeatedly and failed every time, so maybe someone should think about actually talking to the public before they write the law?

MS: Well, I think you bring up a very good point. I mean, part of the reason that if you trace back to the immigration fights in 2003, 2005, in 2006 and 2007, I mean, much of the time, the reason that they faltered was because you know, groups outside, either activists on the Republican side, in some cases, immigration activists on the pro-immigration side, in some cases, labor unions. I mean, at various different points, various groups outside of this city really raised holy hell, and so the agreements fell apart. But I would say, I mean, Hugh, that at some point, you do need people who actually know how to write these bills, right? You do need to know people who, you do need to have people who know the technical skills. And so you know, I guess the point of the article was that at some point, after all of the yelling, and after all of the negotiating and the whatever, you’ve got to have somebody you can sort of sit down and trust the person on the other side and say let’s talk about how we might do this.

HH: But it’s the insularity, Michael Shear, because I think, and I’ve talked about this on air with Krauthammer and Barnes, and most of the inside the Beltway journalists who understand the center-right, there’s 90% of agreement on 90% of these issues. The one thing that the Beltway won’t agree to is to build a long, strong, high fence. They just won’t do it. It’s got to be at least half the border long. There are places it doesn’t need to be built. The Beltway won’t do it. People tell you we don’t need it. But the public at large, and I go all over this country and I talk to everyone, they all say just build the fence so this doesn’t happen again, the outward expression of the inner conviction to control the border. But Beltway insiders don’t get outside, and therefore, this nice, little partnership won’t have a clue that they could solve this if they just build a fence.

MS: Well, and look, I mean, you may be right. And if that’s the case, and if they, you know, if they, being these two women, but also more importantly, the kind of parties that they represent, if they do spend the next six months you know, kind of only inward facing, only thinking about the kind of inside the Beltway politics and machinations, and they don’t listen to the people on the outside, I think you’re right. I mean, I think you know, I would, if I were making bets, I’d probably bet on it not working. But I’m not so sure that there isn’t a chance at least this time that some of those voices can break through.

HH: You know, the wisest guy in D.C. on this is Jon Kyl, and former Senator Kyl now admits their enormous mistake. I think it was 2005 when they tried to do the jam down, and it’s about border security. But it’s Groundhog Day in D.C. when it comes to immigration, Michael Shear, and I think it’s Groundhog Day, because dedicated professionals like these two ladies talk to each other and they line up constituent support, and they get the Chamber of Commerce, and they talk about Z visas and J visas and L visas, path to citizenship, all these different details, and they never actually hold town halls, and the Speaker doesn’t go out, and the White House doesn’t go out, and they end up, it’s Groundhog Day. I mean, there is no chance of an immigration bill passing this year, because as soon as I read this article, I said insiders will produce a draft, the outside will erupt. What was the reaction to your piece, by the way? Did anyone note that this was true, they were working on it, but boy, what a bad idea?

MS: You know, it’s interesting, I mean, I don’t, you know, I try to…I don’t read all of them. I don’t want to say that I read every comment that is posted on my articles, but I do try to go on to get a sense of what people are thinking. There was an awful lot of reaction to this article from people who were opposed to any sort of agreement. You know, they don’t want any sort of legalization for folks that are here, and they’re highly suspicious of the Senate and any sort of comprehensive deal. So I mean, you know, to the extent that that represents, I mean, that’s often, those comments are often very sort of self-selected and what have you. But that certainly was one reaction that I go. And look, I think the thing that I pick up that is I think along the lines you would probably agree, the folks in the House are not only focused on the border security, which is an issue obviously that has, you know, as you say, ignites a lot of passion. But there’s also a lot of Republican support for increased interior enforcement.

HH: No, no. In fact, Michael, this is the interesting thing. The Beltway tells itself that, and there isn’t any passion out here. People want a fence. It’s the F word they won’t talk about. Internal security, visa control, everyone, blah, blah, blah. It’s the fence.

MS: Okay.

HH: And until and unless they build it…and so when I…the thing I react to is I want this thing to get done. I want regularization. This is the wrong set of politics. But the same people talking to the same people make the same mistakes, and they never see it coming. I just find it, it was fascinating to me because my guess is Ms. Tallent and Ms. Olavarria are wonderfully, bright, smart people who are clueless about what will happen to whatever their work product it.

MS: Well, I will say, the one thing I will say in, and you know, I’m not here to defend them in any way, but part of what got me onto writing about them was the fact that their efforts over the years have been documented in a series of documentary films which I referred to in the piece. A filmmaking couple decided to do a bunch of documentaries on the immigration issue. But if you watch those films, there are many times when both of these women are back in Arizona, or back in parts of the country for town hall meetings, and you know, with the lawmakers they worked for at the time, a lot of time spent with John McCain at town hall meeting. So while I take your point, and I think it’s overall right, I don’t know that they’re so insulated as you think.

HH: Interesting defense. Ask them about the F word sometime, and they’ll go abba-dabba-dabba, and they’ll end up promising six yards of mesh. Michael Shear, thank you so much from the New York Times. The piece ran in yesterday’s New York Times. Go and read it. You’ll see what is wrong with immigration policy and what is right.

End of interview.

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