The remaining political oxygen for a debate leading up to Congress's summer recess will be used to fuel the debate on immigration. While it seems like the "debate" over this issue has gone on forever, it really hasn't. The knowledge that America has a huge number of people living and working here illegally has been with us for decades, and many have used the issue to fuel political campaigns and other talking points. Debate on how to actually fix the problem, however, has been sorely lacking -- until now.
Even among the opponents of most solutions there is a realization that some form of bill is likely to pass. Those who shout "Amnesty!" as a response to any reform measure are increasingly being drowned out, and not only by Democrats or even moderate Republicans. Conservative Republicans are finally engaging the debate in a meaningful way that indicates some form of bill is likely to pass.
The key for conservatives at this point is to decide if they wish to be part of the solution, of if they wish to stand on the sidelines with their arms crossed and watch the parade go by. Party leaders are keenly aware that while Democrats are likely to get the lion's share of the credit if a bill passes, they and those on Republican ballots in the next election will get all of the blame as is custom if the measures fail.
The bill before the U.S. Senate is not perfect, and is unacceptable to many conservatives. It is, however, being debated under an open rule that will allow for many amendments. Senators have let it be known that they want more than 60 votes for the measure to pass in order to send a strong message to House Republicans to pass a bill. Marco Rubio, vilified by some within the TEA Party that propelled him to the position he is currently in, may determine if and how there is a successful compromise.
At issue is how one defines border security, whether or not this bill stops future illegal immigration, potential unfunded mandates being passed down to the states with the bill, and if special interest payoffs are being included in order to gain support of key Senators.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has proposed an amendment that will eliminate many of the border security issues by specifying a 90 percent apprehension rate of those attempting to cross the Southern U.S. border illegally, real time biometric monitoring of those here on visas, and implementation of a nationwide e-Verify system.
Democrats are pushing back, arguing that the benchmarks are too specific. And thus, here, is both the opportunity and duty for Republicans to actively and constructively engage the debate.
Opponents of the bill rightfully remind supporters that a comprehensive reform was tried in 1986. Instead of solving the problem, it may well have accelerated it. Specific benchmarks are needed to ensure that solving this issue means solving it once and for all rather than papering over the status quo.
Rather than continue the tired shrieks of "amnesty," those in opposition need to articulate -- clearly and concisely -- on what terms they can and will support a solution. They then need to be prepared to support those like Rubio if he can negotiate terms on their behalf. The process that is about to unfold will likely determine if there are a sufficient number of Republicans who actually want to solve this problem, or if many will routinely throw dust into the air to obscure any possible fix as unacceptable.
Conservatives need to be prepared to say who shall determine when the border is secure, and what metric can reasonable be used. This must apply not only to border crossings, but to visas that expire as well.
Skeptics will want to know that future illegal immigrants will be excluded from any benefits granted under this compromise in order to ensure that the bill doesn't just set up another queue. A provision in the Senate bill that grants the president authority to issue waivers for many of the enforcement provisions is particularly troublesome in this regard. Part of this solution must force us to move from a status quo where we decide which laws will be enforced and which will not.
In short, exemptions and legalization for those already here must be traded for assurances that those who come here illegally in the future will not be condoned as they have for the past few decades. We must adopt a system that stresses legal immigration. In order to do so, we must also draw a harder, quantifiable line toward those who would try to circumvent the legal system in the future.
As Marco Rubio has said, the biggest form of amnesty is doing nothing and keeping our current system of laws that are ignored and unenforced. A time to cut a deal is at hand. Republicans must decide if they can join together to articulate reasonable concerns with the proposed bill and offer substantive changes, or if too many will be forced to the sidelines by a vocal fringe that wants no bill. If they do the latter, there will likely still be a bill. It just won't contain the safeguards that a united conservative bloc could gain.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.