As clock ticked, senator pressed sides for a pact
By Susan Milligan, Boston Globe
WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday night, Senator Edward M. Kennedy stared at an exhausted negotiating team of 20 senators and two Cabinet secretaries and said, "Let's shoot for 10 o'clock tomorrow morning."
The negotiators were tantalizingly close to a historic deal to remake the nation's immigration system. But at several points, nervous senators were ready to give up. Republicans wanted to give temporary visas only to workers taking undersubscribed jobs. Democrats wanted to allow family members of immigrants to come in more quickly.
But Kennedy, the Senate's consummate dealmaker -- still indefatigable at 75 -- pushed hard at his fellow Democrats, wavering Republican moderates, and even members of the Bush administration, insisting that the deal-makers work all night Wednesday to beat the deadline imposed by the Senate leadership.
Yesterday, the two Cabinet secretaries -- both of whom have been subjects of Kennedy broadsides in the past -- lauded the Democrats' aging lion as the one indispensable player in the negotiating process.
"He's awesome," gushed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff , as he left a news conference announcing the bipartisan agreement. "I'd say he was one of the critical leaders in putting together this deal."
Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez called it "a real privilege" to work with Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and liberal stalwart who spends much of his time trying to thwart or undo Bush administration policies.
"It's obvious we're in different parties. We don't always agree," Gutierrez said. But, he added, Kennedy "is focused. He's very determined."
Kennedy's demand that negotiators have a deal by 10 a.m., Gutierrez said, was the "stimulus" that got the deal done.
A pact on immigration appeared dim at the beginning of the year. Several of the key Republican senators -- John McCain of Arizona, Mel Martinez of Florida, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina -- were starting to feel the pressure of election-year politics. Several were considering presidential runs. Graham was preparing to run for re election in a conservative state. And Martinez, a key supporter of overhauling immigration , was heading his party's Senate re election committee -- meaning he had to watch what he said for fear of alienating fellow Republicans.
But Kennedy -- aware that an immigration pact would need to be finished by summer or it would collapse in the heat of campaign ing -- moved quickly. He sat down with President Bush at the White House soon after the Democrats retook the Senate earlier this year, telling the president he thought the Democratic leadership could help salvage immigration legislation Bush had been trying to get for six years.
Kennedy said he used other opportunities, such as the annual St. Patrick's Day luncheon, to talk to the president about the issue. Some 10 weeks ago, Kennedy, Gutierrez, Chertoff, and about a dozen senators in both parties began a grueling series of negotiations, meeting for two hours several times a week in search of a deal.
"There were times he [Kennedy] blew up, and I had to calm him down. There were times I blew up, and he calmed me down," said Graham . But he said the Massachusetts lawmaker refused to let things drop.
"He was informed, determined, practical, and essential," Graham said. Asked whether there was a moment when Kennedy had saved the package when it appeared to be crumbling, Graham said, "112 moments."
Graham said he sensed some members of the Bush administration didn't completely trust Kennedy at the start of the talks. The Massachusetts senator had worked closely with Bush on the No Child Left Behind education bill, but Kennedy had been a frequent and sometimes brutal critic of the White House, particularly over the Iraq war.
Immigration could be a potent political issue for both parties next year, with traditionally Democratic labor unions opposed to expanded immigration and conservatives insisting it is wrong to reward illegal immigrants with the possibility of citizenship.
"They thought, 'Does Kennedy want a bill? Or is he setting us up for a fall?' " Graham said, referring to unnamed White House aides. But once they were convinced Kennedy genuinely wanted a bill -- something the Massachusetts senator demonstrated by the sheer time commitment he made -- "things started to move forward," Graham said.
Stuck in a room together in bipartisan talks unusual for Congress and the Bush administration, the negotiators began to talk as fellow Americans, telling stories about their own families and immigrant experiences. Kennedy talked about his family's Irish history.
Several times, senators on both sides seemed ready to give up.
"You'd say, 'My God, if this thing isn't in, we've got no plan,' " Kennedy said, recalling the fluid nature of the talks.
At 8 a.m. yesterday , Kennedy called Graham. "This is coming apart, that's coming apart," Graham recalled Kennedy telling him. Kennedy cajoled the team into a final negotiating session, and the group came to an agreement by midday -- two hours after the deadline set by the Bay State senator.
Kennedy celebrated by meeting with several families affected by the March raid on illegal immigrants in New Bedford .
"They're still reeling from that," Kennedy said.
"When I told them the bill would make them safe and secure, you should have seen the look in their eyes. They knew they didn't have to be scared."