ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee began marking up an immigration bill. We used to speak of immigration reform, but in recent years it's become circumspect to say overhaul, which is presumably more neutral. Our Friday political commentators don't seem especially neutral about the issue. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, good to see you here.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.
SIEGEL: And joining us from New York, sitting in for David Brooks this week, Reihan Salam, who writes The Agenda for National Review Online. Welcome back.
REIHAN SALAM: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.
SIEGEL: First, E.J., is a bipartisan immigration bill possible still or is it likely to fail over, say, whether to recognize same-sex marriages for immigrants or some other wedge issue?
DIONNE: Well, I think the same-sex marriage for immigrants issue could really endanger the bill because I think Marco Rubio, in particular, who's very important in the group of eight who have put this compromise together, would probably feel compelled to drop off. And the Democrats are desperate to try to do something that might satisfy the gay and lesbian community and not endanger the bill. It's very tricky. But on the whole, I think what happened this week was quite positive for immigration reform. The bipartisan group stuck together on amendments. They gave Republicans a few amendments that didn't obstruct their compromise, so they'll be able to say afterward, well, we did compromise some with the Republicans. But both sides voted against amendments that might have wrecked their deal. So, it was real progress this week so far.
SIEGEL: Reihan, you've written about the immigration debate in Washington and public opinion. Is public opinion strong enough to support the kind of immigration bill that we're hearing about?
SALAM: Well, here's one of the big puzzles: the Pew Research Center this week released a fascinating survey which found that only 25 percent of Americans want to see legal immigration increased, against 36 percent who want it decreased. And among Hispanics, the number is only 28 percent want to see the numbers increased. There is an elite consensus that we want an immigration overhaul that will lead to a big substantial increase in legal immigration but it doesn't seem to resonate with a wider public.
And now this week another thing happened. Los Angeles County has been complaining to the federal government about one of the key aspects of the deal for Senate conservatives, which is that immigrants will not benefit under this law, you know, who get the provisional status, those who are unauthorized now. They won't benefit from the benefits under the Affordable Care Act. Now, the problem is, that leaves counties like Los Angeles County in a really rough position. So, a lot of these side deals that conservatives are attaching to immigration reform, to make the immigration reform acceptable to conservatives, look like they might unravel in the next few years, as a lot of local governments find them too onerous.
SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think about that, the elite consensus Reihan speaks about that there obviously should be more illegal immigration and, in fact, a very divided to negative public view on that question.
DIONNE: Well, you know, I think there are areas where the elite consensus overlaps with the public view and then there is this issue that Reihan raised. In general, there's a lot of polling that shows that the public supports a path to citizenship with certain requirements attached for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants who are here. And so I think the underlying principle of this bill has broad popular support, including more support than people often realize among Republicans. As a general matter, I think when Americans are asked this question at a time of an economic downturn, I'm not surprised that they give a negative answer. The issue here is that the idea of increasing the number of immigrants is very important to the business community, which in turn, makes it very important to many conservative Republicans.
SALAM: If I may, Robert...
SIEGEL: Yes, please.
SALAM: ...briefly, it is true that 73 percent of folks believe that there should be some path for unauthorized immigrants to remain in the country legally. The trouble is that only 44 percent actually support a path to citizenship. So, I think that E.J. is right that folks believe that this unauthorized population that's been here for many years and what have you, ought to have some path to legalization. Citizenship is a much more contentious and dicey issue.
DIONNE: Could I say, there's been a lot of studies of different ways to ask that question. If citizenship is a test to certain requirements, like learning English, paying a fine, then you actually get majority support for citizenship.
SALAM: Pew was very careful in asking that question, but you're right that there are different results and different surveys.
SIEGEL: We have a little bit of time for Benghazi. There were lots of hearings that Republicans organized on Capitol Hill this week. Which is it? Is it, as Senator Lindsey Graham has suggested, another Watergate about to burst open, or is it a very political preemptive strike against Hillary Clinton for 2016? Reihan, I'll start with you.
SALAM: You know, I think that what we're also seeing is a kind of bureaucratic conflict. It looks as though there were some differences of opinion between the CIA and the State Department regarding how they wanted this story characterized. And what I worry about is that we're focusing way too much on what happened after the attack and not nearly enough on what happened in the weeks leading up to the attack. We had some warnings about the vulnerability of American diplomatic personnel in Libya. And also what happened during the day of the attack. So, that's definitely a concern of mine. I worry that we're focusing too much on what might be a project of bureaucratic infighting.
DIONNE: Amen to that. I think we're not focusing on what we can do to prevent or at least to do more to prevent something like this from happening again. My text for today on the political question - yes, it's about Hillary Clinton - is from Ed Rogers, a loyal Republican operative. I met him in the '88 Bush campaign - the first President Bush. He wrote in the Washington Post, and he's talking about Republicans, we need to recognize that we aren't impressing anyone except maybe a small subset of our base when we see things that no one else sees and declare any fact that is inconsistent with a narrative we want to be wrong, manufactured or somehow previously unknown and explosive. This is from a very loyal Republican. I wish we could focus on substantive things about protecting our diplomats and not about an effort to Hillary Clinton's possible presidential campaign.
SALAM: Well, I think the substantive questions really raise questions about the judgment of the president regarding what happened in the run-up to the attack. So I don't necessarily think that this means that well, gosh, let's wash our hands of it. I think that we do need to learn much more about what happened.
But again, I think it would be constructive to focus on what happened prior to the attack itself.
SIEGEL: Reihan Salam of the National Review Online, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thanks to both of you.
DIONNE: Thank you.
SALAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.