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The Border Fence and the Senate Debate on Immigration Reform

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Some GOP senators are about to impact their long-term futures in the party, some for the better and some for the much, much worse. The debate on immigration reform moves to the Senate floor, and the major legislative moment of the next three years begins.

Senator Kelly Ayotte’s announcement that she would be supporting the immigration reform bill is not surprising as most center-right conservatives in the Senate are expected to do so.

The question is whether any of the Senate’s conservative leadership will support the final version of the bill, and not just the young “Tea Party” caucus of Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and rand Paul, but every GOP senator who nurtures a long-term hope for national leadership.

If the amended version of the Judiciary Committee version of the bill fails to attract enough conservative support, the bill will have practically no chance of passage in the House even if it garners 60+ votes, nor will anything remotely like it. The same certain defeat in the House will follow if Senator Marco Rubio refuses to sign on to the final Senate version.

This a moment for genuine leadership to be exercised, and a reputation for seriousness and ability to be earned.

Many partisan Democrats are hoping for the narrowest of wins –a Senate bill that passes with just enough support and that then crashes and burns in the House.  Partisans on the left are more than willing to sacrifice the legitimate hopes of pro-immigration reform forces if that means the GOP loses its chance to take majority control of the Senate in 2014, which could well be lost if the partisan Democrats combine with the strategically-challenged Senate GOP members to push a lousy bill to the House by the narrowest of margins.  Thus the key now is to strengthen the border security provisions so that conservatives are comfortable supporting the eventual bill.

This reality makes Senator Ayotte’s announcement puzzling because it reduces the incentives for Senate Democrats to bargain on the key provisions, all of which involve border security and the most important of which will mandate construction of a real, double-sided fence extending hundreds of miles along the passable sections of the southern border.  if Senate Democrats can get to 60 votes without serious border security –the fence– then the House will reject the bill and the GOP will take a huge hit.

My Monday Washington Examiner column reviews this basic reality as well as the disappointment most border-security conservatives felt when Senator Cornyn’s press release Friday failed to even mention the border fence.  For whatever reason, Beltway Republicans live in fear of talking candidly and in detail about the fence –why it is necessary, where and when it will be built and how much it will cost.

Good laws are easy to read and cannot be misunderstood, nor can their intended impact be postponed or avoided.  The fact that a border fence act passed in 2006 and very little came from it underscores the reason why conservatives are rightly very suspicious of any amendment package that doesn’t spell out the details; appropriate and bank the funding in an account accessible by the fence-builders; and back the authorization to build with the sort of “notwithstanding any other law” language that truly gets the roadblocks to construction out of the way, trumping all lawsuits brought by “environmental activists” citing the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act and providing affirmation for use of the federal condemnation authority where private property is involved.

The country built the interstate highways.  It can build a fence.  if it wants to.  if the Congress truly directs that it be done.  If the path to permanent residence status begins when the fence building ends.  If the trigger is really and truly a trigger.

The Boeing effort to build a “virtual fence” collapsed in early 2011, which doesn’t mean that high-tech systems and the new favorite of every anti-fence head-faker, drones, cannot be part of a border border security effort.  Defense in depth along the border is the key, and the reason isn’t just to forestall a third wave of illegal immigration hoping to find work but to stop most of the crime and drug and human-smuggling and hopefully all of the terrorists that seek to use overland passages.  Boeing’s effort was making progress on such things as tunnel detection, and Israeli experts can be called on again to assist in the securing of the southern border.  The border can be made secure, or at least much, much more secure than it is today.

But as the Senate opens debate on the final version of its offering, it has to know that a bill without the fence is just doomed.  No conservative will join the effort to back immigration reform that leaves the border without a fence and dependent upon this Administration’s guarantees of future efforts and results.  To even talk about 90% control or even 100% control of 90% or even 100% of the border is just mind-numbingly obtuse, an invitation to reject the bill wrapped in such glop.

A serious border security amendment will be easy to read, specific as to location and construction design, and contain citizen-enforcement provisions.  It will appropriate all the money needed and transfer it and the authority to proceed to a new entity the sole purpose of which is to get the fence built.  It will provide citizen standing to people to sue and stop the regularization if milestones based on miles of completed construction are not met.  There are lots and lots of ways to guarantee that it gets done.

Opponents of regularization will say a fence isn’t enough to win their support, and opponents of a fence will say it doesn’t work, but a fence is enough for a crucial portion of the conservative movement, and it does work well enough for most conservatives.  It is a necessary part of any deal.

I discussed why some Beltway Republicans have such a hard time discussing the fence with Mark Steyn last week.  Here’s that part of the conversation (full transcript here):

HH: [T]his week, Marco Rubio came on the show and announced that he probably wouldn’t vote for his own bill unless it was amended. And that was good news, because it needs a lot of amendments. But then, John Cornyn’s amendment leaked, Mark Steyn, and there’s no fence in the leak. Now maybe it’s still in the bill, but what they gave Jen Rubin, I just said to myself, nobody cares about everything the Republicans talk about when they talk about border security. Nobody cares about 90% control of 95% of the sectors on seven out of eight days. Nobody cares about that. They just want a fence. But the Republicans won’t talk about a fence. Are we getting a giant head fake?

MS: Well, let’s put it this way. I mean, you’re a bigger fan of the fence than I am.

HH: Yeah, I know that.

MS: Because I think there’s actually quite a few problems with legal immigration that will arise from this bill. But you know why a fence appeals to people, and I think that’s partly why it appeals to you, is because you can see it. If you happen to be in Southern Arizona or Southern California, you will be able to see the fence. It will be something concrete that will be visible that has to be done, has to be made, has to be built. And so much of what government is, particularly at the federal level now, is mumbo jumbo. It’s about programs, it’s about targets, it’s about expenditures, but it’s not about anything you can actually see, feel, touch, know where the money’s gone, have something that’s objective and measurable. And I think the Democrats are obviously the best at this. I mean, Obama ramped up the national debt by $6 trillion dollars in his first term, and nobody can see where a dime of that money has actually gone. He spent $6 trillion dollars and left no trace. But the Republicans are prone to a touch of that, too, that they’d prefer a lot of these other so-called nebulous, amorphous, shadowy safeguards that no one is actually going to be able to nail down and say no, you failed to meet that deadline, no, this doesn’t exist, no, that’s a flop, too. And the Republicans are too attached to that.

HH: You have read me exactly right, and it’s because the fence is the visible expression of an invisible resolve. But what I hadn’t figured out until you just said it is that Republicans don’t want to be held to that standard, either. I’ve been trying to figure out if they think it’s bad politics, but it’s not bad politics. And it’s not ineffective, because Israel’s fence works. And the folks in Arizona know these things work. But you are probably right. They don’t want to be held accountable for when it doesn’t get built, and they all swear on a stack of Bibles that they were delivering something.

MS: Yeah, and I think that’s true, because it’s something where you’re delivering something that cannot be argued with. A wall is a wall. It’s either there or it’s not there. And almost everything they’re doing in Washington is unreal in that respect.

Conservatives are very, very skeptical of anything the president promises, and that cynicism is seeping into their assessment of the Beltway GOP as well.  There are some conservatives who are already completely distrustful of the “establishment” GOP, but their distrust is fueled at least in part by the amazing lack of candor and availability of anyone not named Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.  Those two both earn enormous leadership points for their willingness to wade into the fray and talk through the issues.  That is what Reagan did, from 1977 to his nomination in 1980, and it is what earns the respect of the base that is looking for leadership in 2016.

The next month will see some very important voices emerge and some very senior GOPers take big pratfalls.  If at the other end the southern border is on its way to genuine, visible security for the first time since it became a huge issue, the debate will have served the country and the GOP.


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