Harry Reid's Ultimatum on Immigration Reform, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this afternoon that the defense authorization bill he's scheduled for debate next week will include the much-anticipated DREAM Act, an immigration bill that provides a path to legal residency for children who are brought into the country illegally.

Reid has previously avoided introducing the DREAM Act, despite its immense popularity within the liberal immigration reform community, because he did not think he had 60 votes for it. In a press conference today, he didn't indicate whether the whip count had changed but rather lamented the fact that Republicans had so far stymied attempts at comprehensive immigration reform.

By slipping DREAM into the defense authorization bill, Reid sets a potential trap for Republicans: vote against the immigration measure and risk being portrayed as stiffing the troops less than two months before midterm elections. But Reid also sets a potential trap for himself, opening the door for Republican opponents -- specifically Nevada challenger Sharron Angle -- to emphasize his Washington insider habit of manipulating legislation so as to further his own political ambitions. "Harry Reid," one can imagine the voice-over actor intoning, "would rather cater to interest groups than give our troops the support they need."

The "interest groups" here are Latino voters and immigration activists, whom Reid has promised again and again that he will take up immigration reform -- specifically the DREAM Act. This bill was first introduced in 2001 and has enjoyed intermittent support from a mix of Republican lawmakers. It's hard to argue against since it allows illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to access legal residency by attending college or serving in the military. Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, and potential Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee have all recently justified support for the measure by arguing that children should not be punished for their parents' crimes.

But while the DREAM Act has more bipartisan potential than comprehensive reform, it's no slam dunk -- especially so close to midterms.

In case the defense bill were not now controversial enough, the bill includes the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Sen. John McCain, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, opposes the repeal and has threatened to filibuster the defense bill in its current form. Reid's DREAM addition will probably not bring McCain around, given that the Arizona senator touted his opposition to the bill (though he co-sponsored it as recently as 2007) during his primary battle with immigration hardliner J.D. Hayworth.

Even if Reid does manage to wrangle enough votes for the repeal, the law would not yet be fully abolished -- President Obama would still have to certify a Pentagon review of a possible repeal, which is not due until December.

Reid's strategy with the defense bill is savvy, and a little bit cunning. He has pushed for both immigration reform and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" for a long time. Having been shot down by partisan politics, his response now is a partisan attempt to nail this legislation while Congress still has the Democratic votes to do so.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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