Running against Spanish
Pit Bull’ of the House Latches On to Immigration
By MARK LEIBOVICH
Published: July 11, 2006
WASHINGTON, July 10 — Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. has no tolerance for illegal immigrants, either in his political life or personal life.
“My housekeeper in Wisconsin was born in Wisconsin,” says Mr. Sensenbrenner, the Republican congressman and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “My housekeeper here is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Nicaragua.”
Mr. Sensenbrenner is so loath to risk dealing with illegal immigrants that when his Cadillacs need cleaning, he prefers do-it-yourself car washes that require tokens. “They don’t have Montezuma’s picture on the front of them,” Mr. Sensenbrenner says of the tokens.
He is sitting in his Capitol Hill office dominated by two life-size portraits of himself. He looms heavily here, as he does in the thick of the national debate over immigration in which he has defied President Bush’s plans for reform and arguably holds more sway than anyone else in Congress. A bipartisan irritant from a state nowhere near the Mexican border, he has outsize influence on the fate of the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
In each portrait in his office, Mr. Sensenbrenner appears regal and contented — in contrast to the rumpled and fed-up image he conveys in real life. He is commonly described as “prickly,” “cantankerous” and “unpleasant.” And this is by his friends.
“I would describe Jim as — what’s a nice word — how about ‘idiosyncratic’?” says Representative Dan Lungren, a California Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Lungren equates Mr. Sensenbrenner’s leadership to something the Green Bay Packer guard Jerry Kramer said about his coach Vince Lombardi. “He treats us all equally,” Mr. Lungren says of Mr. Sensenbrenner. “He treats us all like dogs.”
Mr. Sensenbrenner, 63, can be neutrally described as a Washington piece of work — a big-bellied curmudgeon with a taste for old Caddies, pontoon boats and enormous cigars. He is equally at home discussing policy minutiae or the details of his Dalmatian’s recent intestinal problems. His honking voice and Upper Midwestern enunciations make him one of the most mimicked politicians on Capitol Hill. (“Noooo interviews in the hallway” is a familiar refrain as he blows past reporters.)
One could dismiss him as something of a cartoon, except that Mr. Sensenbrenner has been a feared and vital character in some defining political dramas, like the Clinton impeachment, the passage of the USA Patriot Act and the current legislative donnybrook over immigration, an issue that he calls his toughest in nearly four decades of public life.
He has approached the matter with characteristic stubbornness, righteousness and, of course, brusqueness. He delights in placing himself above the chummy niceties of Washington. (On the subject of his crotchety nature, he smiles big and becomes almost giddy — most unSensenbrenner-like.
posted by Steve @ 2:37:00 AM