Grassroots Claim Credit in Outcome of Immigration Fight

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT

(1st Add: Includes comments from President Bush.)

( - Conservative grassroots organizers claimed victory in convincing 18 senators to reverse course and vote against cloture on the controversial comprehensive immigration reform bill that died in the Senate Thursday.

Just two days after the Senate voted 64-35 to resume debate on the bill, 18 senators reversed course and voted against final cloture on the bill, which would have ended debate and set it up for a vote. Supporters needed to maintain 60 votes to invoke cloture but only managed to hold 46. Fifty-three voted against cloture.

"The days of shoving legislation down the throats of the American people are over," Jessica Echard, executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum, said in a release. "Grassroots America, talk radio and a handful of senators stood toe to toe with our nation's elite power class, and we won!

"It's time for our elected officials to drop this push for amnesty, once and for all," Echard said. "America would be better served if senators used their August recess to travel down to the border and help build the fence they passed last year."

In the nearly 48 hours between the Tuesday cloture vote and the vote Thursday morning, opponents of the bill inundated Senate offices with phone calls, faxes and email encouraging senators to vote against cloture. The Senate's chief information officer announced that the "moderate increase in call volume" caused the office phone system to fail.

Attempts to reach Senate offices for comment by phone Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful. Phones calls were immediately disconnected and returned to a dial tone.

Dan Stein, president of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, a leading opponent of the comprehensive reform proposal, said the failure to bring a vote on the bill is "a tribute to vibrancy of our democracy."

"This was nothing short of a popular revolt against an unresponsive government in Washington that is not only out of touch with the concerns of the people they represent, but openly disdainful of them," Stein said in a statement.

"The defeat of the cloture motion occurred because the American public responded to the effort to ram through an illegal alien amnesty and guest worker program with an unrelenting barrage of phone calls, email and protests," he said.

"They were aided in this effort by talk radio, cable news personalities and Internet bloggers who refused to let the Bush administration and its allies in Congress sell out the interests of the American people under the cover of secrecy," Stein added.

President Bush thanked the senators and members of the administration who worked on the bill, adding that he's "sorry the Senate was unable to reach agreement on the bill."

"Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people and Congress's failure to act on it is a disappointment. The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes to our immigration laws. A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find a common ground -- it didn't work," Bush said.

"Congress really needs to prove to the American people that it can come together on hard issues. The Congress needs to work on comprehensive energy policy and good health care; make sure health care is affordable without inviting the federal government to run the health care system," the president said.

"We've got to work together to make sure we can balance this federal budget, and not overspend or raise taxes on the American people. We've got a lot of work to do," he added.

During debate on the Senate floor before the vote, several senators credited the barrage of opposition with influencing the outcome.

Opponents of the bill, like Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), described the conflict as "a war between the American people and their government," adding that the vote on cloture was "about whether or not we're going to listen to the American people."

Supporters of the bill complained about the nature of the opposition and said its influence was unfair.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the calls and letters had been "filled with prejudice and hatred and venom." He said he turned one letter over to investigators when it suggested he should enter a witness protection program for supporting the bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said: "I know what's been going on out there. I know the calls that have been made. I know some of the threats that have been made."

She said senators and constituents who don't support the measure "don't understand the bill." Feinstein urged her colleagues to vote for cloture because "if we miss this opportunity, there is not likely to be another opportunity in the next few years to fix this."

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of 12 Republicans who voted for cloture, was a main target of conservative complaints. He said before the vote that he supported the bill because he thought opponents did not represent a majority of Americans.

He said "friends" had "called me endlessly" to complain about the bill but said opponents weren't aware of what the bill would have done. "Once you tell people what's in the bill ... it's two to one [in favor of it] in about every poll I've seen."

"What I'm trying to do is provide a solution to a problem that affects the American people," Graham said.

Recent polling on the legislation shows mixed results. A June CNN/Opinion Research poll found that only 30 percent of respondents supported the bill, while 42 percent opposed it.

But other polling suggests Americans support a majority of the bill's provisions. Support is high for provisions that would punish employers who hire illegal immigrants, create a guest worker program and increase border security, according to a June NBC poll.

However, support for a path to legalization for millions of illegal immigrants is lower, with 35 percent in favor of "allowing workers ... to apply for permanent U.S. residency if they return to their home country within eight years and pay additional fines. More than half of respondents opposed that measure."

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