This week’s charged Senate debate over immigration may give Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) a chance to chip away at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s lead with the crucial Hispanic voting bloc.
The New York Democrat won the prized endorsement last week of Los Angeles’s Hispanic mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, but Obama is working closely with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of a handful of nationally known Latino officials yet to endorse a presidential candidate.
Taking a break from the presidential campaign trail, Obama this week will be visible on Capitol Hill, as the Senate resumes work on its immigration bill. He is cosponsoring four amendments, including two with Menendez, to the legislation, which would create a path for citizenship for the 12 million immigrants in the country illegally. And this Saturday, Obama’s campaign plans to highlight his work as volunteers go door to door in a host of cities, including several with major Hispanic populations, to support his candidacy.
The success of Obama’s efforts on immigration may be known as early as today. Republican and Democratic negotiators will hold a potentially decisive meeting to determine which of 14 pending amendments will pass muster with their fragile,
bipartisan coalition, whose support is crucial to the fate of the bill.
Republican negotiators are expected to oppose family-reunification amendments, which are central to the efforts this week by Obama and other Democratic presidential candidates. Conversely, groups representing Hispanic immigrants are opposed to the bill unless family provisions are added to the measure.
But if the Senate adopts amendments opposed by the bipartisan group, it could be enough to create a rift within the coalition and sink the underlying bill. And failure in the Senate could provide ammunition for the non-senators in the Democratic presidential race.
“The politics of immigration are still so new and so raw that it’s hard to say with any certainty how this all plays out,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports earned citizenship for illegal immigrants. “But if immigration reform fails, incumbents in both parties will have a difficult time explaining it to the voters.”
For Democratic presidential candidates, the rewards for making headway this week with Latinos on one of their key issues are potentially enormous.
Under the reshuffled primary schedule, more than 80 percent of the Latino electorate may cast a vote by early February, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). In Nevada, the state that will host the nation’s second caucus, almost 9 percent of the electorate is Latino.
The number of Latinos voting in 2008 is expected to surpass the record of nearly 8 million who voted in 2006.
Clinton’s campaign also has ammunition. It announced the Villaraigosa endorsement in the middle of the recess week, and it cited poll numbers showing she has the support of 60 percent of Latinos. According to that poll, the next closest candidate was Obama, who secured a 12 percent favorability rating among Latinos.
Clinton’s campaign attributes the strong poll numbers in part to her work on the immigration bill, which includes an amendment she is offering this week with Menendez that would reclassify spouses and children of legal permanent immigrants as “immediate relatives.” That would allow them to be exempt from visa caps.
But rival strategists argue that Clinton’s name recognition may be the true reason for the strong poll numbers, and they note that working-class voters, including immigrants, generally don’t follow the presidential contest this early in the process.
“Once Latino voters know these candidates, they will vote for them on their merit,” said André Pineda, a senior strategist for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson, New Mexico’s Hispanic governor.
Obama and Clinton will not be the only Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate this week courting Hispanic voters. Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) are also teaming up with Menendez on different amendments with backing from immigrant groups. Dodd is already a candidate, while Hagel will decide on a run later this year.
At month’s end, the presidential candidates will be able to point to their work during this week’s debate at a presidential forum hosted by the NALEO.
Obama’s campaign points to endorsements from two Hispanic legislators — fellow Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez and California state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero. Another Latino Democratic senator, Ken Salazar of Colorado, is staying neutral for now, a Salazar spokesman said.
To beef up his policy credentials, Obama is joining Menendez in offering an amendment that would sunset after five years a new point system in the bill that would place a greater emphasis on bringing higher-skilled immigrants into the country.
Their second amendment would alter the point system to add greater weight to the prospect of unifying families.
Even though immigrant groups are wary of the current bill, they warn that a lack of progress could come back to haunt lawmakers.
“I think the emotional resonance of the family issue is profound,” said Deepak Barghava, head of the Center for Community Change, which supports a path for citizenship for illegal immigrants. “I think those questions at some point or another will result in a powerful reaction, and we are already starting to see the seeds of it.”