What happened is that then-Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) was able to insert a "poison pill" amendment into the bill by a vote of 49-48, an amendment which undid the delicate compromise negotiated by a group of Republican and Democratic senators including John McCain and Ted Kennedy. Dorgan's amendment was made at the request of organized labor which, despite its rhetoric, has a more ambivalent position on immigration reform than it publicly acknowledges. The bipartisan group was stunned and outraged when Senator Obama joined Dorgan in supporting the amendment which passed by one vote. They were stunned because Obama sat in on one of the meetings of the bipartisan group and, at his insistence, they had included a provision he insisted on. The group hammered out a compromise under which they agreed to support the proposed bill without further amendment.
So why did Senator Obama kill the compromise? It was all because of a higher priority; getting the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008 and the support of organized labor would be critical in reaching his goal. Just keep that in mind as you assess the President's actions. For more on the 2007 vote you can read this.
The anticipated action by the President is about much more than immigration; in fact, regardless of what one thinks about immigration reform his planned action will damage America. It strikes at the heart of our Constitutional system and has the potential to wreak long-term havoc on our political system, as the Washington Post points out in its editorial opposing the President's plan. Ross Douthat made the same points in an eloquent op-ed in the New York Times:
The reality is there is no agreed-upon limit to the scope of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law because no president has attempted anything remotely like what Obama is contemplating. In past cases, presidents used the powers he’s invoking to grant work permits to modest, clearly defined populations facing some obvious impediment (war, persecution, natural disaster) to returning home. None of those moves even approached this plan’s scale, none attempted to transform a major public policy debate, and none were deployed as blackmail against a Congress unwilling to work the president’s will.If the President proceeds with his planned action he will be demonstrating his contempt for the American voter and our Constitution.
No defender of Obama’s proposed move has successfully explained why it wouldn’t be a model for a future president interested in unilateral rewrites of other areas of public policy (the tax code, for instance) where sweeping applications of “discretion” could achieve partisan victories by fiat. No liberal has persuasively explained how, after spending the last Republican administration complaining about presidential “signing statements,” it makes sense for the left to begin applying Cheneyite theories of executive power on domestic policy debates.
Especially debates in which the executive branch is effectively acting in direct defiance of the electoral process. This is where the administration has entered extraordinarily brazen territory, since part of its original case for taking these steps was that they supposedly serve the public will, which only yahoos and congressional Republicans oppose.
This argument was specious before; now it looks ridiculous. The election just past was not, of course, a formal referendum on the president’s proposed amnesty, but it was conducted with the promise of unilateral action in the background, and with immigration as one of the more hotly debated issues. The result was a devastating defeat for Obama and his party, and most polling on unilateral action is pretty terrible for the president.
So there is no public will at work here. There is only the will to power of this White House.. . .And make no mistake, the president is free to choose. No immediate crisis forces his hand; no doom awaits the country if he waits. He once campaigned on constitutionalism and executive restraint; he once abjured exactly this power. There is still time for him to respect the limits of his office, the lines of authority established by the Constitution, the outcome of the last election.Or he can choose the power grab, and the accompanying disgrace.