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Greenfield: A house divided

Deep House-Senate split may doom immigration measure

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

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The biggest divide over immigration is not between the political parties but between the House and the Senate.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- It looks like we're headed for a huge political fight -- not between Republicans and Democrats, but between the Senate's immigration bill and the one passed last December by the House of Representatives: enforcement-only, no-guest-worker, no-path-to-citizenship bill.

It's a new version of a very old fight -- with a fascinating new wrinkle.

From the beginning, the House and Senate were set up as very different bodies. The House was the "people's" chamber, popularly elected every two years.

The Senate was the more magisterial branch, something like the British House of Lords, with six-year terms to insulate senators from public pressures. It took 125 years and a constitutional amendment, the 17th, for Americans to get to vote directly for senators.

The Senate system was designed to rein in the dangerous impulses of a majoritarian frenzy; as George Washington put it, the Senate was "the saucer" in which coffee was poured to cool down. (We don't use saucers for this purpose any more, but let that pass.)

You can see the remnants of this distinction today. Senators have their own desks, a fancier chamber, and much more important, they get to confirm judges, Cabinet members, and approve treaties -- areas where the House has no role.

So, understandably, the House guards its powers jealously. In the early '60s, a war broke out when the House thought the Senate was usurping its constitutional power to originate "money bills."

In the early '90s, fights over Clinton's budget package exploded into acrimony. The House was especially angry at the power of senators to tie the Congress up in knots.

But the coming battle on immigration has a special twist, one that stems from the extraordinary ability of House GOP leaders to maintain party discipline akin to a parliamentary party in Europe.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has proclaimed a "majority of the majority" rule -- he won't even bring up a bill unless most of the House Republicans back it. And right now, there seems to be no way to get most House Republicans to back anything like the Senate bill.

Why does this matter? Go back to 1993 and President Clinton's fight to get the North American Free Trade Agreement passed. Most Democrats voted against the pact -- including Democratic leader Richard Gephardt. But it was ratified because three-fourths of House Republicans backed Clinton.

Unless Hastert sets aside that "rule" -- or unless the House or Senate all but concedes its case -- it's hard to see how any immigration bill can pass.

It brings to mind a lesson that an old Democratic House member once taught a newcomer: "In time," he said, "you'll learn that Republicans are the adversary --but the Senate is your enemy.

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