WASHINGTON -- Sen. Harry Reid opposes Arizona's new border law and has proposed an alternative in Congress. But he declined Wednesday to take a stand on the Obama's administration's lawsuit against the state.
Reid, D-Nev., declined to offer support or to distance himself from the Justice Department's challenge of the Arizona law as unconstitutional.
"That's the administration's decision," Reid spokesman Jon Summers said when asked for Reid's views on the lawsuit and whether he agreed with it.
Among other Nevada lawmakers, Republican Rep. Dean Heller said he opposed the lawsuit, contending President Barack Obama was using it to mask failures to control the border.
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus also questioned the suit, saying it would do little to solve the root problems of immigration.
"What the government should be spending its time and energy on is enforcing existing federal laws and fixing our broken immigration system through comprehensive reform with border security as its cornerstone," she said.
On the other hand, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said the Arizona law raises constitutional questions that merit action, "and that is what (Attorney General) Eric Holder is doing."
By comparison, Reid, who is in a high stakes fight for re-election, was more cautious in his reaction. Republican Sen. John Ensign could not be reached, his office said. An aide said last week he would be traveling with family.
Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said it appears Reid is trying to walk a line in a state where he needs a lot of Hispanics to vote for him in November. At the same time polls show the Arizona law is popular among his constituents.
"He may be trying not to stir the pot on that right now," Peplowski said. "He is trying not to look like he is going to the left while he is painting (Republican opponent Sharron) Angle as going to the right.
"Reid is trying to stay in the moderate zone. That is who they are fighting over the next 90 days, the moderate voters."
The federal lawsuit, filed in Arizona, reignited the controversy over the new law that requires police to question individuals they have "a reasonable suspicion" to believe might be in the state illegally.
Justice attorneys asked the court to stop the law from going into effect at the end of the month, arguing it conflicts with federal statutes and will lead to police harassment of citizens who are Hispanic.
Reid in April said the law was an example "of why we need to fix our broken system." A spokesman later said Reid believed it amounted to the "legalization of racial profiling."
But Arizona officials say the law was within state rights, born of frustration that the federal government has failed to control the southern U.S. border. They argue it is necessary to protect residents from crimes committed by illegals after they cross into the United States.
Angle believes Obama has diverted the Justice Department "to interfere with the sovereignty of Arizona," her spokesman Jerry Stacy said.
"The state of Arizona patiently waited long enough for the federal government to do its job, and Arizona is reacting because the federal government fails to secure the border and enforce the laws already on the books," Stacy said.
A poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in early June showed 57 percent of Nevadans would support an Arizona-style law to combat illegal immigration. Thirty-two percent were opposed while 11 percent were undecided.
A Republican official said Reid is caught in the middle "and is trying to have it both ways."
"Very clearly on the one hand he sees the poll numbers that show a majority of his constituents oppose the lawsuit and on the other hand he is looking ahead to his re-election and hoping he can scare folks in the Hispanic community," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
When attention initially was focused on Arizona and immigration earlier this year, Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders released an outline in April for a bill that aimed to tighten security and add more enforcement agents at the border, setting benchmarks to measure progress.
The plan also included a protracted process to legalize about 12 million immigrants. It would require people in the country illegally to register, be screened and pay taxes. Those cleared by authorities could seek permanent residency eight years after security benchmarks are met and after current visa backlogs are cleared for people seeking to enter the country legally.
Applicants also would need to show they know basic English and have paid all applicable fees and penalties.
On Wednesday, Summers in an e-mail reiterated Reid's view that immigration reform "is too important to do by piecemeal, which is why he will continue working on comprehensive immigration reform that secures our borders and brings 12 million people out of the shadows."
At an immigration rally in Las Vegas in April, Reid, the Senate majority leader, was cheered when he promised the Senate would take up a reform bill this year.
But like climate change legislation, an immigration bill appears mired and unlikely to pass. Reid blames Republicans for failing to step up, while Republicans say Reid is playing up the issue for political gain back home.
Heller estimated 85 percent of his constituents support the Arizona law, as measured by a survey of people who take part in telephone town hall meetings.
"If the federal government was doing its job, Arizona would not have needed to pass the new immigration law," Heller said. "Once again, this administration is seeking to score political points and headlines instead of offering solutions."
Titus said the lawsuit "does not address the root problem; it is simply a jurisdictional battle.
"Democrats and Republicans need to work together to find bipartisan solutions that address this complex issue," she said.
Berkley said the Arizona law would not have come to pass if Congress had fixed the border in the first place.
"The system we have now should have been fixed twenty years ago and it's time that we secure our borders and reform the broken immigration system we have today," Berkley said. "No more political football, real action by Congress on a comprehensive package of reforms and more federal resources to secure America's borders -- that's what we need and what I support."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.