Before heading out for six weeks of recess, the Senate did not even take up two of the biggest issues facing Congress: comprehensive energy legislation and immigration reform. The climate bill got slashed and shrunk and tucked into an oil-spill response that didn't make it to debate, while immigration received a mere nod in the form of a border security re-up bill. With the Senate's cramped schedule in September and hyper-partisan atmosphere leading up to midterms, neither issue will likely be tackled in full this year.
This does not, however, mean that nothing is being done. Behind the legislative scenes, the Obama administration has been filling the gaps on both energy and immigration. The EPA is set to implement a host of new regulations reducing greenhouse gas emissions in January. The specter of EPA regulation has been used as a stick to pressure senators into voting for energy reform -- no one thinks regulation is the best way to cut emissions, but Republicans especially are loathe to agree to more industry red tape -- and everyone seemed a bit surprised when it became clear that the back-up plan was the only plan left. Nevertheless, Obama has vowed to veto any bill that restricts the EPA's ability to regulate carbon.
As for immigration, the administration has focused on tailoring its deportations to reflect its priorities. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 20,000 more people in 2009 than in 2008 but deported 24 percent fewer immigrants who had not committed crimes.
One particular group the administration seems to be consciously ignoring is illegal aliens who came here as children. In a controversial memo titled "Administrative Alternatives to Comprehensive Immigration Reform," the Citizenship and Immigration Service recommended a "non-legislative version of 'amnesty'" for these immigrants. The memo, which was leaked to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and then circulated through the conservative blogosphere, suggested deferring deportation of immigrants who would be eligible for the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to permanent residency for those are brought to the States as children and later go to college or serve in the military and would lift restrictions on student loans and financial aid.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently deferred deportation proceedings for Marlen Moreno, a 25-year-old mother in Tucson who was arrested for using a fake social security card to work at a Panda Express. The DREAM Act was designed with people like Moreno in mind. Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 13. She was not able to attend college because she did not qualify for in-state tuition. Her husband is a legal permanent resident and their two children are U.S. citizens. Immigration reform activists mobilized on Moreno's behalf, flooding Napolitano with letters and pleas to let Moreno stay in the country.
The DREAM Act has been floating around Congress for nine years and has received intermittent Republican support. When the bill was last voted on in 2007, some Democrats withheld their votes because they worried passing the bill would decrease chances for comprehensive immigration reform. Now that the Senate's chances of passing comprehensive anything are laughable, Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he would be happy to bring the DREAM Act to the floor on its own if it could muster 60 votes.
Congress is already shifting from tackling big issues like energy and immigration in comprehensive bundles to dealing with them in fragmented chunks. But until these chunks make it through the current gridlock, the Obama administration will be busy filling the gaps.
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