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DREAM Act: Is Harry Reid angling for Hispanic votes?

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Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom

(Read caption) Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada speaks to reporters after the Senate Democratic policy luncheon Sept. 14 in Washington.

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Why is Senate majority leader Harry Reid forcing a vote on the DREAM Act – a piece of legislation that has long been a priority of immigration-rights advocates and has little chance of passing?

Most of the political buzz this week has centered on the fate of a proposed repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military, which was attached as an amendment to a crucial defense spending bill. But the DREAM Act was an amendment to the bill, too.

The bill failed to break a filibuster Tuesday afternoon, meaning Senator Reid will have to decide whether to drop the amendments, to attach them to other legislation, or to try again.

There are reasons for Reid's eagerness on the DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship to some illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children. It has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. The Defense Department has called the DREAM Act necessary to maintaining a volunteer force. And the DREAM Act also has some high-profile military advocates such as retired Gen. Colin Powell.

Yet in the days before elections, most political calculations in Washington are with November in mind, and Reid finds himself in a tight Senate race. That has given the move the scent of political opportunism.

Hispanics make up 26 percent of Nevada's population. (In 2008, they accounted for about 15 percent of the electorate.) In his neck-and-neck battle with "tea-party" favorite Sharron Angle, the majority leader needs every vote he can get, and he's counting on a big positive response from Hispanics for pushing a bill that is popular with them.

It isn't the first time this election cycle that Reid has been accused of angling for Hispanic votes. He made the abrupt decision in April to make immigration reform the Senate's top priority – a move that led nowhere and angered Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham so much that he dropped his support for climate-change legislation, which has also since collapsed.

Reid's more recent move on the DREAM Act, of course, could also anger some independent voters enough to push them into Ms. Angle’s camp – something she is counting on. (The DREAM Act would grant legal status to immigrants younger than 36 who arrived in the US as children, have lived here for five years, and are currently either in college or serving in the military.)

Angle has already released a TV spot calling Senator Reid “the best friend an illegal alien ever had.”

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Bringing the measure to a vote is putting other candidates in an uncomfortable position. Rep. Mark Kirk – a moderate Republican battling it out in Illinois for President Obama’s old Senate seat – has refused to take a stand on the bill, though he may have to vote on it. Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), a former sponsor of the act, has vowed to block it this time.

While pushing the DREAM Act now is clearly designed to get Hispanics out in big numbers – and voting for Democrats – in November, no one knows if the tactic will work or backfire. It allows Republicans – like minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who said the addition makes the defense bill “needlessly controversial" – to charge them with election-year maneuvering and politicizing a defense bill.

Meanwhile, despite the dim outlook for the measure, undocumented students and other supporters around the country are mobilizing to support it, with rallies in Florida and protests outside Republican Sen. Scott Brown's office in Massachusetts.

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