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Commentary: One for clarity and honesty

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SAN DIEGO -- What's gotten into Lindsey Graham?

The Republican senator from South Carolina has been working with New York Democrat Chuck Schumer to achieve what Graham calls the "tough heavy lift" of immigration reform. The two have spelled out the basic framework of the legislation, which is yet to be introduced but enjoys the support of the White House.

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So a lot of people were caught off guard when Graham recently threatened to back away from his own legislation. The apparent about-face probably wasn't because of pushback from the right. Graham has already stared down that storm. A few years ago, the senator caught grief after a speech to the National Council of La Raza in which he promised immigration reform and said the way to do it was to "tell the bigots to shut up." For that dose of candor, right-wing bloggers dubbed him "Grahamnesty."

Yet Graham doesn't seem to care about any of this. Why else partner with Schumer to resurrect the immigration debate? What Graham does appear to care about quite a bit is bringing to that debate a couple of things it lacks: clarity and honesty.

Clarity: In 2008, Graham traveled the country stumping for his friend and colleague Sen. John McCain, who had stuck his neck out to forge a bipartisan immigration compromise with Sen. Ted Kennedy. All that McCain got in return were headaches from fellow Republicans and heartache from Hispanic voters who, as loyal Democrats, cast two-thirds of their ballots for Barack Obama.

This would be the same Obama who in his brief time in the Senate worked with Democratic leader Harry Reid to derail comprehensive immigration reform by proposing "poison pill" amendments that Democrats knew Republicans, who were then in the majority, wouldn't support. The poison was inserted at the behest of organized labor, which made it clear it opposed any plan that included Chamber of Commerce-friendly language about importing hundreds of thousands of additional guest workers.

But try telling that story to the Beltway media, much of which resists anything that clashes with its existing narrative that it was Republicans alone who killed immigration reform, all evidence to the contrary. Graham has tried to set the record straight without much success.

I understand where that narrative comes from. After all, Republican lawmakers can be loud and obnoxious when the immigration debate comes up.

You won't find such Democratic unity in the immigration debate, not with many Democratic lawmakers doing labor's bidding and others buying into the fable that legalizing illegal immigrants would hurt U.S. workers by providing competition.

During a recent appearance with Schumer on NBC's "Meet the Press," Graham said that he was just being honest when he predicted before the vote that, if health care passed in such a manner, it would "pretty much kill any chance of immigration reform passing the Senate this year." And indeed, after the vote, McCain vowed that there would be no more cooperation with the White House on any issue this year.

Despite his threat to walk away from the issue, Graham said he would "keep working with (Schumer) on immigration." But he's obviously fed up with the mainstream media insisting that Republicans are the main obstacles to achieving immigration reform. And he's tired of being asked by the White House to deliver the votes of Republicans when it's the support of Democrats that really matters.

Who can blame him? Still, leadership requires that he finish what he started, and fix an immigration system that is badly broken. Let history take care of the rest.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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