Republicans wanted a special legislative session to address the illegal immigration issue — an issue they think they can win with in 2006 — and they got what they wanted. They also got their political rear-ends handed to them in the five day session that just ended, because Democrats so out-maneuvered them that they are going to end up getting the credit while stealing any potential political victories out from under the GOP.
You can read the Rocky Mountain News’ coverage of the end of the special session, which closed with an agreement between Democrats and Governor Bill Owens on a handful of immigration-related measures, but here’s the political reality of what happened: Democrats won big, touting “the nation’s toughest immigration laws,” and Republicans look more fractured than ever. There is one thing, by and large, that Republicans hoped to gain from the special session, and there was one thing they didn’t want to do along the way. What happened? Let’s just say the GOP went o-for-2.
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The political reasons behind the special session, for Republicans, were to get a measure banning services to illegal immigrants on the ballot in November. Republicans believed that such a measure would help turn out their base on election day, benefitting all Republicans down the line. Democrats ran an end-around on that plan, however, proposing their own legislation that would restrict services and become effective as of August 1. Basically, the Democratic message can now be, “We passed strong crackdown measures on illegal immigration, and we made it effective immediately. Republicans wanted to put it to a vote and wait until 2007 for it to become law.”
On the other hand, what Republicans did not want to do was alienate their friends in the business community by imposing any stronger penalties on hiring illegal immigrants. Democrats forced those measures through, which they always claimed was an important step in any immigration reform measure.
When Republicans and Gov. Owens insisted on a special session, they boxed themselves in — they couldn’t come out of the session without passing something, and Democrats knew that. Gov. Owens was left with an unappealing choice: Sign the Democratic-created bills to crack down on immigration, or basically admit that the whole reasoning behind the session was a political shenanigan. Owens rightly went with option #1, and many Republicans weren’t happy about it. But they had no choice.
Democrats severely outplayed Republicans in this one, and it may carry over into the fall elections. Republicans just lost the best message they thought they had.