How policy nihilists in the Senate doomed LGBT immigrants

Same-sex couples lose in Senate immigration reform fight, as Democrats pander to cynical Lindsey Graham

Published May 22, 2013 12:29PM (EDT)

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 20, 2013.       (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 20, 2013. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The immigration bill crafted by the Senate "Gang of Eight" passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening, with a 13-5 vote. Every senator involved in the markup session leading up to the vote was very proud of him- or herself for how great the markup session was going. Especially after the senators bravely shot down a proposal to recognize the marriages of LGBT immigrants.

It was a very self-congratulatory affair, as each senator congratulated every other senator for their great legislative skill, their deeply held principles and their impressive civility. The markup deliberations were "courageous," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, in reference to a bunch of people, mostly old dudes, carefully deciding exactly how awful they had to make an immigration bill before it could pass a Congress full of bigots, cynical fake-bigots and wingnuts. Even Ted Cruz was sort of civil as he hectored the committee for not passing his amendments, most of which were designed to ruin the bill. Everyone who opposes the bill, and those proposed amendments designed to sink it, had to say that they deeply wanted immigration reform to happen, it's just that they defined reform as "no citizenship plus a bigger fence." (Also everyone referred to the bill's authors as the "group of eight" and not a "gang.")

The most dispiriting moment came late in the amendment process, when Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy was forced to withdraw his own amendment, which would have treated same-sex couples equally under the proposed law. And senator after senator announced why they couldn't support it. Not necessarily because they didn't think gay couples deserved the same protection of the law, but because, you know, their colleagues don't support it. Not because their colleagues are unkind! Just because, you know, their constituents are still a bit squicked out by gay people.

Sen. Lindsey Graham went first, saying he opposed the inclusion of gay couples’ protections in the bill.

“If you redefine marriage for immigration purposes [by the amendment], the bill would fall apart because the coalition would fall apart,” he said. “It would be a bridge too far.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein cited Graham’s comments, then, saying, “I think this sounds like the fairest approach, but here’s the problem … we know this is going to blow the agreement apart. I don’t want to blow this bill apart.”

One Democrat after another caved, entirely because they knew that if they supported LGBT rights, pathological deal-destroyer Lindsey Graham would destroy the deal. (He basically promised as much.) This is the micro form of the problem Democrats have been having since Obama took office: They want their legislation to pass, because they support the goals of their legislation. Republicans are indifferent, usually, to the goals of legislation and more concerned with how supporting or opposing bills makes them appear.

Democrats want immigration reform to pass because they want immigrants to have a chance to become citizens. Senate Republicans want to be seen as in favor of reform but they also wouldn't mind (and in many cases would prefer) being seen as having been forced to regretfully withdraw their support from the reform proposal, because Democrats "overreached."

So yesterday was a game where Republicans try to see how bad they can get away with making the bill, in order to try to get Democrats to jump ship, while Democrats tried to see how bad they had to allow the bill to be in order to retain Republican support. It's healthcare all over again! In that fight, Republicans knew they had a strategic advantage, because Democrats desperately wanted to extend healthcare coverage to all Americans, and Republicans did not give a shit about that goal. So Republicans (and Lieberman) could just screw with the bill as much as they wanted and then not support it at all, confident that Democrats were too attached to the broader goal to give up on the bill just because there was no public option or Medicare buy-in.

Everyone in the Senate yesterday pretended the markup session and vote were an example of legislating the way it's supposed to be done, with both sides agreeing to tough compromises and bravely chucking aside special interests in favor of the broader good. But it was just another fight between a group of people committed to a cause and a bunch of policy nihilists. The policy nihilists have a built-in advantage, every time. They are happy to exploit that advantage. That's why Democrats had to abandon same-sex couples, and that's why doing so still doesn't guarantee the bill's success.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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