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Short goodnight expected for the DREAM Act during lame duck

The DREAM Act — a priority of Democrats in both Congress and the White House — faces a difficult future in the lame duck.

Even as Democrats in both chambers prepare to consider the measure this week, Republicans and centrist Democrats are already lining up to shoot it down.

The climb is particularly steep in the Senate, where Republicans will filibuster the hot-button bill, and even former sponsors now stand in opposition.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, for instance, was the lead sponsor of the original DREAM Act when it emerged nine years ago. But already facing pressure from conservatives surrounding his 2012 reelection bid, the six-term Utah Republican is “sprinting to the right” away from the proposal, according to Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group lobbying for the bill.

“He’s not on any of our ‘get’ lists,” Sharry said.

Hatch spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier declined to comment Friday on whether Hatch supports the underlying policy. She said Hatch’s opposition — at least in the near term — stems from the recent vow among Senate Republicans to deny everything that hits the floor before the Bush tax cuts and government funding issues are settled.

“Everything’s a ‘no’ until the tax issue is resolved,” Ferrier said.

Hatch is hardly alone. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is also promising to vote against the DREAM Act next week. Though she was one of seven current Senate Republicans to vote in favor of a similar measure when it came up in 2007, the latest version “is very different from and broader than previous efforts,” her office said Friday in an e-mail.

“The current legislation would include green cards and citizenship, which under present law would follow with amnesty for those who came here illegally as adults,” the e-mail read. “[Hutchison] has and continues to support allowing for student and temporary, renewable visas for qualified students and graduates who have grown up and been educated in the United States. But she will not support legislation now being put forward as the DREAM Act because it goes far beyond dealing with these affected young people.”

Last month, more than a dozen immigration-reform activists were arrested outside Hutchison’s office in San Antonio as they lobbied the Texas Republican to support the bill.

A number of centrist Democrats are also promising to fight the proposal. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) voted against the measure three years ago and “is inclined to oppose the bill again,” spokesman John LaBombard wrote Friday in an e-mail.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who voted in favor of the measure in 2007, says he won’t do the same this time around. His opposition, according to spokesman Jake Thompson, is twofold. First, the Senate should be focusing on jobs and the economy before it does anything else, Thompson said. And second, the provisions of the DREAM Act should be included as part of comprehensive immigration reform — an effort, he said, that shouldn’t proceed “until the borders have been secured.”

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) is an early anomaly among the Republican DREAM Act backers of 2007. He said he’ll support the bill if it comes up as a standalone measure.

“Putting it in a bill that has a number of objectionable aspects is not something I support,” Bennett said Friday in an e-mail. “If Harry Reid brings it to the floor as a standalone bill, I will vote for it.”

Bennett lost his bid for reelection at Utah’s GOP convention earlier this year. He was defeated by Sen.-elect Mike Lee (R-Utah), who had backing from the Tea Party movement.

Sen. Dick Lugar is on the fence. Although the Indiana Republican voted for the measure in 2007 — and was a co-sponsor as recently as September — spokesman Mark Helmke said Friday that Democrats have since altered the bill without Lugar’s input, leaving his vote next week up in the air.

“We’re still trying to see how they’ve changed it,” Helmke said.

The offices of the other past GOP supporters — including Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Susan Collins (Maine) — did not return calls and e-mails for comment.

Among the Democrats who opposed the bill in 2007, the offices of Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) also did not respond to calls and e-mails. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) — also “no” votes in 2007 — could not be reached.

The DREAM Act offers illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 a pathway to permanent residency — and ultimately citizenship — if they meet certain requirements. They have to have been in the country for at least five years; they must have a diploma from an American high school (or the equivalent); and they must enter an institution of higher education or the military.

Supporters say the bill would empower motivated young residents to become more productive members of society; opponents argue it rewards people who broke the law in entering the country.

Defeat would mark a setback to the Obama administration, which has staged a media blitz in recent weeks urging passage of the bill. Leaders of the Defense, Education and Homeland Security departments have each come forward to promote the reforms as vital for the success of their agencies.

The bill has a much better shot in the House, where Democrats still retain an enormous majority and even some Blue Dog Democrats have indicated their support. Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), for example, are both backing the measure, according to Sharry, the immigration-reform advocate.

Other Blue Dogs, like Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), said they support the policy, but want the bill to originate in the Senate.

“If the House brings it up without the Senate passing it first, I’ll vote against it,” Lincoln said Thursday.

Democrats were encouraged Thursday by the release of the latest cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, which found the bill will cut deficit spending by $1.4 billion over the next decade. House leaders, Sharry said, “are feeling pretty good” about next week’s vote, which is expected to come as early as Wednesday.

Passage in the lower chamber, Sharry said, would lend momentum as the bill goes to the Senate, where even a failed vote would send a strong message to Hispanics — an ever-growing voting bloc being courted by both parties.

“There’s only one way to find out [where lawmakers stand],” Sharry said, “and that’s to force the vote.”


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