MANCHESTER, N.H. -- ''Silent amnesty.''
GOP White House hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a champion of the comprehensive immigration bill faltering on the Senate floor this week, did not invent the phrase. But he has been using it lately. If the notion of "silent amnesty" gains traction, it may throw a lifeline to the comprehensive immigration bill, which is, once again, headed nowhere.
Amnesty is a red-meat word. Immigration opponents spit it out to demagogue, making it difficult to have a rational discussion about what to do with the estimated 12 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
Backers of the comprehensive immigration bill use a lot of energy to dance around the word amnesty. Giving a break is a form of amnesty. Lou Dobbs has a point. But a process to legalize illegal status -- full of hoops to jump through -- is a long way from the blanket amnesty that opponents talk about.
McCain is trying to reframe the discussion. The word "amnesty" needs to be neutralized. The other day, in calling out rival Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who does not support a revamp of the system, McCain said that position amounted to pandering and "silent amnesty."
At the Republican presidential debate at Saint Anselm College here Tuesday night, McCain explained, "For us to do nothing is silent and de facto amnesty. What we have done is what you expect us to do, my friends, and that's come together with the president of the United States, the leader of our party, Democrat and Republican, conservative Republicans like Jon Kyl, Johnny Isakson, Saxby Chambliss and Trent Lott, and sit down and figure out an approach to this problem.''
If Congress stalls, then illegal immigrants stay in the country without doing anything to resolve their status. That, in effect, is also a break. That's a form of amnesty, because there is no way millions of people -- some living in the shadows of society -- are going to be rounded up and sent back.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who like McCain has worked for years on immigration, said "we will not conduct massive roundups and deport 12 million. We do not have the means to do it. It would disrupt our economy and inflict hardships and cost more than $250 billion to have buses all the way from Los Angeles to New York and back to try and do this, if it was even possible."
Last year, Congress could not agree on a bill when the Republicans controlled both chambers. With the Democrats in charge, the result may be the same because the measure may be loaded with compromises -- such as a guest worker program -- some Democrats just won't accept. Watching the Senate struggle this week with a series of amendments to the main immigration bill, I don't think this downbeat prediction is premature
Immigration is already injected in the 2008 Republican primary, and the debate showed the wide divide between McCain and his chief rivals, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Romney, who say that the overhaul is not necessary.
Unlike most Senate matters, where 60 votes are needed to keep a measure alive, this time the magic number is just two. As I wrote this Wednesday, the two Senate leaders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), were talking to see if they can break the brewing stalemate. McConnell wants the Senate to consider more amendments; Reid wants an agreement over how much time they will take up.
Whatever the Senate decides, there will have to be a second vote before any bill goes to the president to sign. As Reid said, "Whatever we bring out of the Senate will be an imperfect piece of legislation, of course. But remember, there are other steps before we finish this. The House has to do a bill. The president will have his input there, I'm sure. It has to go to conference. There will be input there.''
If the process stops, then the silent amnesty continues.