Poison Pills… But for Whom?

In the legislative process, there are many hurdles that need to be cleared before a law can be passed. A member of Congress must sponsor a bill, at which point it is taken up by the appropriate committee. If the committee takes a vote and passes the bill, it is then taken up by the entire Congress. The House of Representatives and Senate each vote on the bill that comes out of that debate, including amendments that their respective bodies attach to the original bill. If both houses pass the bill, the differences are worked out in a conference, which includes members of both houses. When the product of conference is voted on, and passed, by both houses, the bill goes to the president for his signature.

When a member of Congress wants to torpedo legislation without having his or her fingerprints all over it, s/he inserts something called a “poison pill.” Usually during the amendment process, a member would insert a provision that renders the bill useless, thereby all but assuring that the legislation gets voted down by the body. A famous example of the use of the amendment problem to shoot down legislation would be the “Dorgan Amendment” in 2007. After trying (unsuccessfully) to add his own amendment to the Bush immigration reform bill that would have changed the way green cards were awarded, then-Senator Obama voted for Sen. Byron Dorgan’s amendment to end the guest worker program after five years. Both Republican Jon Kyl and Democrat Ted Kennedy called the amendment out for what its purpose was, to kill the bill, and it passed 49–48, with Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint casting the deciding vote with the stated purpose of defeating the bill.

Obama’s vote for the poison pill in 2007 was surprising, considering he had participated in a meeting with the drafters of the legislation. And now, with the “Gang of Eight” legislation, led by Marco Rubio, he seems poised to demand yet another “poison pill” be added to the legislation he has been pushing hard to have realized. Obama has signaled that he opposes tying the legalization of current illegals in any way to border security. Conservative pundits such as Dr. Charles Krauthammer have speculated that his motivation for this is likely rooted in the fact that the issue of immigration is more valuable going forward to be exploited as a wedge issue than passing effective legislation is. So banking on Republican desperation to get something passed, the President is hoping that border enforcement loopholes are left open in the legislation wide enough that the GOP is still faced with this problem, repeating the mistakes of 1986.

There is, however, another, more plausible reason for Obama’s current insistence on changing the bill so that it will ultimately go down in flames. Remembering his support for the 2007 poison pill is key to understanding what is going on with the current immigration reform bill. At the time, many speculated that the reason he voted for the poison pill was to deny President Bush the legislative victory of the passage of his own immigration reform bill. It would seem that history has a way of repeating itself.

There is an oft-repeated quote from President Harry S Truman: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” The biggest problem that this Immigration Reform bill carries for the president is that it’s Sen. Rubio, not he, who is seen as the principal driving force behind it. In the 2007 immigration reform bill, Obama backed the amendment that would doom the bill, even after he was allowed by the bill’s sponsors to make changes to the original language of the bill, presumably to deny the sitting president credit. Now he seems on the verge of doing it yet again. This would allow him to deny the GOP’s rising star the credit he rightfully deserves for getting it done. Not only would Rubio not be able to claim credit for a major legislative achievement, but, in the President’s thinking, being that Rubio has repeatedly said he’d kill the bill if there wasn’t an effective enforcement trigger, he’d also have to be the one to shoulder the blame when it ends up on the trash heap.

But this would be a major miscalculation. A recent poll by Rasmussen has shown that “Fifty-nine percent of Likely U.S. voters favor an immigration plan that gives illegal immigrants legal status to stay in the United States provided the border is really secured to prevent future illegal immigration,” while just 25 percent oppose tying the two together. Senator Rubio has proven to be an effective communicator on this issue, and should continue to be able to make the point that the Obama position is the one that is out of sync with the majority of Americans, not Rubio’s. That would only end up giving the Republicans the strongest possible position, that of the populist problem solvers, as opposed to the president, who comes off looking like an obstructionist ideologue. That is a battleground that is custom made for Republican wins going forward, and the tactics used to get there are those which can give hope to conservatives that the movement can be revived.