• U.S.

The Playmaker: How Kennedy Got His Way

3 minute read
Massimo Calabresi

Ted Kennedy hasn’t won yet, but he’s closing in. Last week the Massachusetts Senator gained support from Republican fence sitters, steamrollered adversaries and–to the surprise of everyone in Washington–steered to the Senate floor a bill that would make citizens of millions of illegal immigrants. His last battle to make it law is with hard-line Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives, and Kennedy, 74, is focused on gaining the sole ally who can win that fight. “There’s one negotiation left, and only one,” he said, sitting on a windowsill in a back hallway at the base of the Capitol dome. “The President.”

With attention on the ruckus within the G.O.P. over immigration, it was easy to lose sight of the Democrat who has emerged as a playmaker on the issue. Kennedy’s Senate rivals acknowledge that he outmaneuvered them. “He had the votes,” concedes John Cornyn of Texas, a key opponent. Realizing the state of play, President George W. Bush reached out, pulling Kennedy aside last week after a meeting on education, the issue that inspired their first collaboration, in 2001. “He said, ‘We want to try and work this out,'” says Kennedy.

Kennedy’s first major success in the Senate was a 1965 immigration bill that replaced country quotas favoring West Europeans with a policy based on family ties and skills. After efforts at reform in 1986, 1990 and 2001, Kennedy saw his latest chance when Bush, at the start of his second term, expressed interest in revolutionizing immigration policy. Before the 2004 election, Kennedy and Republican Senator John McCain agreed to combine competing bills, and last May they came to terms that included a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants.

Kennedy spent the next 10 months building support. In the end, two Senators proved crucial: Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas. Both faced immigrant-hostile constituents but also pressure from the agriculture industry to legalize a huge portion of its workforce. Three days before the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on a modified version of the Kennedy-McCain bill, Kennedy’s and Feinstein’s staffs worked out a path to citizenship for illegal agricultural workers, a deal that would pave the way for unlawful immigrants working other jobs. Where Bush will come down is unknown. The President has supported a guest-worker plan but has not fully embraced the idea of making illegal immigrants citizens. “We’re not exactly there together, but we’ve spoken about it,” Kennedy says. Will negotiations be made tougher because their last major collaboration–No Child Left Behind–has proved a major disappointment to Kennedy? For this bill, Kennedy delivered Democratic votes in exchange for a promise of funding for education that he feels was not delivered. Kennedy aides say history won’t get in the way of this deal. To defeat House opponents, it’s Bush’s mouth, not his money, that Kennedy needs.

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