An Interview With National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman, John Ensign

On Friday, I got together for a phone interview with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman, John Ensign. Unfortunately, we spent more time than I anticipated debating particular parts of the bill and there were a few questions I planned to ask him that we didn’t have time to hit. Still, I appreciate the time he took, especially since he knew going in that I was going to give him a tough time about the immigration bill. Here’s the transcript of the interview, edited slightly for readability’s sake.

John Hawkins: Let me start off by saying that I think you’re a great senator, very conservative, and doing as good a job as anybody can in the tough job you’ve got over there…at the NRSC. I just want to get that in there before we get started…

John Ensign: Thank you, I appreciate that.

John Hawkins:…One thing that activists have really wanted NRSC to do is stay out of primary races. Reason being, if a Republican is having trouble in a primary, it’s a sure sign that he’s not doing a good job of representing the Republicans who put him in office. Tom Cole over at the RNCC has said they’re not going to get involved any more. Will the NRSC do the same thing?

John Ensign: Well, I think it’ll depend on the situation….You have to look at the state. Sometimes, people are about as conservative as you can possibly hope for from a particular state. The Northeast is not like the West or the South. You can be much more conservative in the West or the South than you can be in the Northeast. Does someone kind of match his state? Is he a team player when he needs to be a team player or is he obstinate? Is he too liberal? You have to take all those things into account.

John Hawkins: So what you’re saying is that maybe someone like Susan Collins you might help, but Lindsey Graham, Chuck Hagel, those kind of people you wouldn’t help?

John Ensign: Well, the bottom line is, I think Susan is doing a great job and about as conservative as you can get from Maine. I think that Susan matches her state very well, which is one of the reasons she has a 73% approval rating up there. She does what she believes is right. She does a good job.

John Hawkins: So what you’re saying is that the people from more conservative states who get in trouble probably wouldn’t get a helping hand?

John Ensign: Well, once again, I am not going to commit one way or the other because you have to take each situation as it comes up.

John Hawkins: Sure, I understand. Give me an estimate of how many calls, emails, and faxes that you think the RNSC has received over the immigration issue and maybe what the for and against ratio has been.

John Ensign: The number of calls to our personal offices as well as to the NRSC are overwhelming and they are overwhelmingly against the bill. It’s, I don’t know, …a hundred to one against.

John Hawkins: If the Senate amnesty bill passes, Tom Tancredo has pledged to campaign against senators who vote for it. You probably know. I’ve set up a website called The Payback Project to do the same thing. The number of (commenters) I’ve seen around the blogosphere who’ve commented that they’re either going to stay home in 2008 or throw their vote away on a third party has been enormous. According to Rasmussen, the public opposes this bill 2 to 1. Given all that, don’t you think it’s fair to say that if this bill passes, isn’t it pretty safe to say that some Republican senators will lose their job as a result?

John Ensign: Well, first of all, I want to see the final version. I don’t think people should judge the final version. I’m against the bill as it currently stands. But, if we can make some changes to the bill, I do believe it will be a much better bill than current law is…and it will help actually clean up some things.

Briefly, some things that need to be put in the bill that are not in there now — one is that we need more resources for interior enforcement. It’s one thing to secure the border, but when 40% of the people have just overstayed their visas….if local law enforcement arrests someone for drunk driving, and they call the immigration service, and the immigration service says we don’t have the resources — that’s unacceptable. They need to have the resources to do that interior enforcement so we can have respect for the rule of law at the borders as well as within our country.

The second thing is, you have to have an exit visa program. If we have a temporary visa program and you don’t have an exit visa program — in other words, if someone is supposed to be here for 10 months and you let him come in legally and he’s supposed…to leave, if you don’t have an exit visa program, there’s no way to know if he’s left. You will end up literally with millions more people here illegally into the future. So, that is a huge flaw in the bill right now that has to be fixed. I’ve talked to Secretary Chertoff about this, to the bill managers about this, to Lindsey Graham about this, and it absolutely must be fixed before we go ahead.

Another thing that is a problem with the bill is that we have to make sure the funding is there. You have got to make sure that (the) mandatory spending is there for border enforcement, for the exit visa program, for interior enforcement, for all of those things that those of us who believe in strengthening our laws (want). We have to make sure the funding is there and that it’s not a wink and a nod.John Hawkins: Well, let me ask you, John: isn’t the thing that…nobody believes that this stuff will be implemented? Even if it’s written in the law….

John Ensign: …We’ve got a lot of laws subject to appropriations and that’s the way it has been in the past and that’s why you have to guarantee the funding. That’s why the funding has to be part of the triggers. In other words, this new Z visa program or the new temporary Y visa program doesn’t go into effect until these things happen. That’s why the triggers have to be real and they have to be tied to funding.

John Hawkins: John, don’t the probationary Z visas start as early as immediately (after the bill is signed)?

John Ensign: I have a problem with that. I think that’s one of the problems with the bill. The problem I have with the probationary Z visa part is that the probation is unlimited…if you make it probationary, make it like two years. You got two years to get the thing in place. You do want folks signing up — having to go through a background check, having to get a tamper proof identification card so we’ll know where they are, where they’re working, and so that they won’t get government benefits, so that they’re not getting welfare, all of those things.

John Hawkins: Well, John, let’s say that’s passed. Trent Lott has already said that they’re going to take that sort of thing out in committee. He’s already publicly said…

John Ensign: Well, we’ve got some good leverage on that as far as conference. We can make sure that those things are what are called, pre-conference. They have to agree to them before we ever allow them to go to the conference. We can filibuster them going to conference. So, we do have some leverage there. We haven’t given everything up by letting that happen. That’s a very strong…parliamentary trick that we have — if the bill is fixed — and I am not in any way, shape, or form confident that the bill is going to be fixed. As a matter of fact, I’m very doubtful. I’m saying that if we can fix it, and I’m saying I would like to fix it, I would actually like to try to solve the problem, it’s just that the current bill misses the mark and it misses the mark badly.

John Hawkins: Ok, well, let me ask you also, given what the loud, clear, and overwhelming conservative outcry against the immigration bill has been, don’t you think that if it passes, conservatives will almost have no other choice than to make sure that 4-5 pro-amnesty senators in 2008 lose just to prove that the GOP can’t get away with totally disregarding the opinions of conservatives?

John Ensign: Once again, I think it depends on the final product, on the final bill…

John Hawkins: So, what if the bill is passed as is today or with the…amendments that are currently up, the 22 they’re going to bring up…?

John Ensign: It may do some damage. It also may do some damage to Democrats though. You have to remember…that a lot of the unions hate this bill. So, it can do some damage to Democrats as well. But, …I think that the passions run very deep and you feel it out there. There’s no question about that. That’s why I am trying to make sure that we fix the bill so that it’s not just good politics, but it’s what’s good for America. You know, that’s one thing that I have discovered in the few years that I’ve been in office. If you do what’s good for America, what’s good for your state, the politics will take care of itself.

John Hawkins: As far as fixing the bill, let me bring one more thing up. I think what everybody seems to be asking for is, or most people seem to be asking for, is to build confidence by putting in enforcement measures first. No probationary visas until, let’s say, we’ve got the wall built – until, let’s say, we’ve got the border patrol up to full strength. What’s the problem with doing that first?

John Ensign: Well, that’s all part of the trigger system. That’s why I said the triggers have to be funded. If you don’t fund the triggers, then the triggers can really just be window dressing.

John Hawkins: We’re sort of seeing that with the wall. It’s not getting built. I think we’ve had 11 miles built so far after all this time…I guess the thing is, since they’re getting probationary permanent Z visas immediately, the triggers are irrelevant….

John Ensign: No, no. This is what we talked about. …Listen to me on these two things. One is that the problem that people like you and I have with the triggers right now, is we’ve seen what’s happened to the funding in the past. It has not been there. That’s why I made the important point that you have to guarantee the funding. …You have to write that into the bill, that the funding is guaranteed. You can…actually do that. The other thing that is the important part of this though, is that you do want folks signed up. It is for us to be able to know where people are and to be able to get rid of some of these criminals. You have to remember that the employee verification system, when it’s in place — it will weed out over time the folks who are here illegally that choose to stay here…and a lot of those would be criminals.

John Hawkins: But, do you believe that will happen because my expectation is that even if you have an employer verification system, the employers will complain and the same people who are supporting this bill will just take it out, or weaken it, or dilute it in the future.

John Ensign: No…because even the people who are supporting this bill — because the immigration system in the future will be based a lot more on merit, and so the employment needs of the country can be based on our economic needs.

John Hawkins: But, John, doesn’t the merit system kick in…in eight years? So, who’s to say that we will ever get to it? How do we know that won’t be taken out?

John Ensign: Well,…the merit system on the Z visa program waits 8 years, but not on the rest of it. So, it is something that is a critical part of this bill, the merit system, because instead of having a system just based on family, just because someone happens to be a 2nd cousin of somebody who is already here, that they don’t really contribute anything to the economy, it can be based on somebody coming here and contributing to this country. Those are the people that we want to attract to the United States.

John Hawkins: I agree with you, it’s just that, again, I don’t think it’s possible to fix this in the bill just because the people who want (this bill), don’t want it to be merit based, they don’t want to enforce the border, and they’ll simply thwart these measures. They’ll either strip it out in committee, they’ll slow walk the laws, or they’ll find a way never to enforce them.

John Ensign: There’s no question that what you are saying — you should be skeptical about this. That’s why we’re trying to put in as many safeguards as possible. And you will not get a perfect bill. But, the one thing we do know is that the current system is broken. And without an employee verification system, I don’t care what walls you build, what you do — without that, you are not going to fix the immigration problem. You need an exit visa program; you need an employee verification system. Period. The end.

John Hawkins: Well, I agree with you, John. But, I guess the point is, why can’t we do that first, before the probationary Z visa…

John Ensign: We can’t get enough votes. That’s the bottom line. If we could do that, I would go with you on that. But, you don’t have enough votes in the U.S. Senate to do that.

John Hawkins: Wouldn’t that be a great campaign issue to run on though if Republicans favored it and Democrats didn’t?

John Ensign: I would rather fix the problem and you’re not going to get it fixed…under the current situation. Therein lies the problem.

John Hawkins: I think this bill can only make it worse — it doesn’t matter what amendments you put on it, as long as it has those probationary Z visas in there that start immediately. I don’t think there’s any way to fix it. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that.

John Ensign: Exactly and listen, there are not two sides to this bill. There are 22 sides to this bill. We can sit conservatives in the room and come up with 20 different opinions on each aspect of the bill. That’s what makes this a very complex piece of legislation and that’s why we’re trying to make as good a law as we possibly can. The one thing we have agreed on is that the current bill is not a good enough law. Very good. I gotta go, I have another press interview right after this.

John Hawkins: Thank you!

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