On Meet the Press, Tim Russert interviewed two Republican members of Congress -- Rep. Charlie Norwood and Sen. Lindsey Graham -- but no Democrats, allowing Norwood to level unchallenged attacks on Democrats.
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On the May 21 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert interviewed two Republican members of Congress -- Rep. Charlie Norwood (GA) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) -- but no Democrats, in what Russert billed as a discussion of "big differences within the Republican Party over what to do with 11 million illegal immigrants" and as "[t]he immigration debate within the Republican Party." But while the segment did highlight significant disagreements between Norwood and Graham, Norwood also used the interview to level unchallenged attacks on Democrats.
During the interview, Russert allowed Norwood to repeat the misleading Republican charge that "Democrats refused" to let House Judiciary Committee chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI) remove a controversial felony provision from Sensenbrenner's own immigration bill. Because Russert did not respond to the statement and because no Democrat appeared on the broadcast, Norwood's statement went unchallenged and unexplained.
Sensenbrenner's bill -- passed by the House in December 2005 -- would make illegal presence in the United States a felony criminal offense punishable by one year and one day in prison. Under current law, unlawful presence is a civil offense punishable by deportation. Before the bill's passage, Sensenbrenner offered an amendment to downgrade the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor punishable by six months in prison. But had a Democrat appeared opposite Norwood on Meet the Press, viewers would likely have learned why Sensenbrenner said he offered his amendment and presumably why most House Democrats voted against it.
As Media Matters for America has noted, Sensenbrenner said in a December 16, 2005, floor statement that the Bush administration had requested the amendment because the original felony provision "would require a grand jury indictment, a trial before a district court judge and a jury trial" in order to prosecute an illegal immigrant. Sensenbrenner said that his amendment would enable "more prosecutions":
SENSENBRENNER: The administration subsequently requested the penalty for these crimes be lowered to 6 months. Making the first offense a felony, as the base bill would do, would require a grand jury indictment, a trial before a district court judge and a jury trial.
Also because it is a felony, the defendant would be able to get a lawyer at public expense if the defendant could not afford the lawyer. These requirements would mean that the government would seldom if ever actually use the new penalties. By leaving these offenses as misdemeanors, more prosecutions are likely to be brought against those aliens whose cases merit criminal prosecution.
For this reason, the amendment returns the sentence for illegal entry to its current 6 months and sets the penalty for unlawful presence at the same level.
Sensenbrenner's amendment failed; 191 House Democrats, 65 Republicans, and one independent voted against it. Norwood voted in favor of the amendment.
On Meet the Press, Russert also allowed Norwood to level an unchallenged attack on Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV). Russert noted that in a May 18 floor speech, Reid characterized a Senate amendment declaring English the "national language" as "racist" and "directed basically to people who speak Spanish." In response, Norwood told Russert: "Dr. No is at work again. Who cares what he says? That's the silliest comment I think I have ever heard in my life."
From the May 21 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:
RUSSERT: Then, big differences within the Republican Party over what to do with 11 million illegal immigrants: undertake a mass deportation or begin a path to citizenship? Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina squares off with Republican Congressman Charlie Norwood of Georgia.
RUSSERT: The immigration debate within the Republican Party: Sen. Lindsey Graham, Congressman Charlie Norwood, after this station break.
RUSSERT: Congressman, what happens to the 11 million illegal immigrants now in our country?
NORWOOD: What happens to them when?
RUSSERT: Well, if the Sensenbrenner bill -- the bill you supported -- is adopted.
NORWOOD: Yes, yes.
RUSSERT: Do they become felons?
NORWOOD: Well, first of all, the Sensenbrenner bill should become adopted because that basically does what the American people want, which is secure the border. Now, I was standing about 10 feet from Chairman Sensenbrenner when he offered to remove that part about felons, and the Democrats refused to let him remove it.
RUSSERT: What happens if that legislation passes to the 11 million illegal immigrants?
NORWOOD: Well, I've got a plan for what ought to happen to the 11 million illegal or --
RUSSERT: If the Sensenbrenner bill passes, what happens?
NORWOOD: Nothing really happens at that point except we secure the border. At some point, we have to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants that are here. We have to deal with a guest worker program. But nobody's really very willing to do that, Tim, until you secure the border.
RUSSERT: When there was a vote on the amendment to make English the official language, Sen. Reid, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate said, quote: "This amendment is racist. I think it is directed basically to people who speak Spanish."
NORWOOD: Dr. No is at work again. Who cares what he says? That's the silliest comment I think I have ever heard in my life.
RUSSERT: Can you get a deal with Sen. Graham?