Obama Administration Dodges Political Problem As Census Amendment Moved To Back Burner

For the last week folks across Washington – from the Commerce Department to Senate leadership to left-leaning advocacy groups – have had a bad case of heartburn over a potential floor fight on an amendment Republican senators were pushing to force the Census Bureau to ask immigration status during their 2010 count.

I wrote about the issue last week when Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) attempted to attach the amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill outlining spending for the next year.

Senate leaders feared the amendment was getting some support from red-state Democrats so the Obama administration worked furiously to get it stripped from the bill, killed or at least pushed down the road to debate when Congress finally tackles immigration reform.

Commerce Sec. Gary Locke made a tough case to senators asking they oppose the amendment, reminding them such a change would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” and long delays since the 300 million census forms would need to be reprinted and reshipped.

“It is too late to shift gears at this point in the process,” Locke wrote in a memo obtained by TPMDC.Locke added the “exact wording of every question” already was given to Congress in 2008.

“A change will require using untested content in the actual census, which may affect both response rates and data quality and cannot be implemented in time to deliver apportionment counts by the statutory deadline of December 31, 2010,” Locke wrote.

Census Director Robert Groves has testified on the Hill that it’s a discussion worth having but not now.

A Democratic source with knowledge of the West Wing told TPMDC the White House was “significantly engaged” in trying to block the amendment. It worked, because last night Democratic leadership refused to include it on the list of amendments that could be brought on the senate floor.

After the negotiations broke down last night, the Senate failed to invoke cloture on the overall appropriations bill, meaning it’s not happening for awhile at least. Senate leadership aides weren’t sure when it will come up again or whether the census amendment would live to see another day.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wasn’t happy, and GOP leadership aides told TPMDC the census was the major sticking point.

Others were lobbying individual offices in an attempt to stop them from supporting the amendment, which legal experts and administration officials note seems unconstitutional.

White House aides reiterated the president’s desire to start substantial work on a comprehensive immigration bill this year.

Simon Rosenberg of left-leaning group NDN wrote senators a letter urging them to think hard before supporting what might appear to be an innocent amendment. (Read the letter here.)

“There has been significant push to defeat this, once Democrats showed interest in the amendment,” Rosenberg told TPMDC. “The senate should go slow rather than fast on this and let a bill come to the floor.”

Fox News seems to be the only media outlet paying much attention to the issue, and we clipped a segment:

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