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"The reality is most people are just desperate to see a solution. If this goes down, the opposition is not offering an alternative and that means the problem is still an issue," said Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster. "We're in a period where people are looking to see leadership and progress." All sides will find reasons to explain away what happened: Democrats blame Republicans for demanding too much and delivering too few votes. Republicans blame Democrats for being unwilling to take their views into account and for opposing details of a guest-worker program. Democrats blame the president for failing to bring his troops into line. Proponents blame anti-immigration forces for whipping up opposition.

There is truth in all their allegations. That this bill was imperfect is without dispute. Only a few politicians - Bush and McCain among them - were strongly vocal in urging passage, but they, too, had reservations about the compromise. House Democratic leaders were tepid in their support, demanding Republicans bring at least 60 votes for the measure in order to offer their freshman members from marginal districts the cover to vote "no."

Reid warned Thursday hours before the bill collapsed that he would not seek to revive the issue. Later, he pledged to work hard "in the next few weeks" to resurrect a deal. Perhaps, once people step back from what happened, they will try again. Perhaps they will succeed on their third try.

Loss of nerve

No one ever believed passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill would be easy. As McCain said in Tuesday's Republican debate in New Hampshire, "It's our job to do the hard things, not the easy things." But for a long time, Washington politicians have flinched at hard things, preferring to engage in political combat aimed at gaining partisan advantage first.

There is little time for progress on difficult issues before Bush's lame-duck status reduces his power even more and before the 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns turn the country into a partisan battlefield. Immigration provides one clear test for the system before that reality locks in. So far the system is losing.

If there is no attempt to revive the immigration bill, the issue will become fodder throughout the long campaign ahead. Already it is shaping the Republican presidential debate, with McCain on one side and his leading opponents all on the other.

Public opinion suggests an electorate open to, but by no means wildly enthusiastic about, comprehensive reform that provides the 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, but only if there is an effective border security plan already in place.

Republicans are clearly divided, but not perhaps as the heated rhetoric of the campaign trail suggests. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that, on the question of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the public narrowly approves: 52 percent to 44 percent. Democrats back such a plan by 57 percent to 38 percent and independents by 51 percent to 45 percent. Republicans are opposed, by 53 percent to 43 percent - significant but not overwhelming.


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