WASHINGTON—Recent history provides a loud cautionary note to President Bush and a bipartisan group of senators pushing significant immigration revisions:
From tobacco regulation to health care, the legislative landscape is littered with grand ideas that shattered upon colliding with political reality.
"Right now it will be very difficult to get any big legislation like immigration through Congress because the parties are so hostile to each other," said Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution analyst and author of a book on welfare restructuring.
Haskins, who served as a domestic policy adviser to Bush in 2002, said that beyond bipartisanship, a handful of other factors often must coincide in order for major changes to advance:
Unity within the majority party in Congress. A dramatic external event such as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A clear direction in public opinion. A strong starting point, like the 1983 report of a panel on Social Security revisions led by Alan Greenspan and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Presidential leadership might be the most important ingredient.
"Congress often is very reluctant to act without the president, no matter which party has the majority," Haskins said.
Paul Light, a public policy professor at New York University, said that like President Johnson during the Vietnam War, Bush's ability to tackle immigration problems or other major issues is weakened by the Iraq war.
"He can't get traction to fix big problems because Iraq is such a distraction," Light said.
Analysts give mixed grades to significant congressional and White House policy initiatives in the last 15 years:
Universal health care: When President Clinton launched his drive to overhaul the U.S. health care system after taking office in January 1993, a clear majority of Americans supported major changes. Clinton put his wife, current Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in charge of the effort, and she oversaw months of closed-door sessions.
President Clinton unveiled the task force's findings in an address to Congress on Sept. 2, 1993. The core recommendation was for mandatory medical coverage by employers through regulated health-maintenance alliances.
Although polls showed that most Americans still backed change, the 1,000-page report by Hillary Clinton's group was complex and technical. The Clintons' political foes derided the plan as "HillaryCare." The major health insurance companies rolled out a devastating series of "Harry and Louise" TV ads that helped turn public sentiment against the proposal.
Over the next year, 27 different bills were introduced to implement all or part of the health care plan, but none passed Congress. There were 37 million Americans without health insurance in 1993; today there are 47 million. Grade: F.
Department of Homeland Security: Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, lawmakers began demanding consolidation of the government's defense, intelligence and emergency-response functions.
Bush initially opposed the idea, but 14 months later he signed into law legislation implementing the most sweeping overhaul of the federal government in a half-century. The new Department of Homeland Security incorporated the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and all or parts of 20 other agencies.
DHS is now the third-largest federal department, with 184,000 employees. Critics say it lacks focus and is too unwieldy. Backers point to the absence of fresh attacks on the homeland since Sept. 11. The government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 prompted calls to make FEMA independent again. Grade: C plus.
McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul: The landmark March 2002 law, named after its two chief Senate sponsors, succeeded in its chief aim: Prevent candidates from bypassing contribution limits through tens of millions of dollars in "soft money" that had been donated first to the major parties, which then redirected it to candidates.
But the cost of congressional and presidential campaigns has continued to rise, with loopholes emerging in McCain-Feingold. Chief among them is the 527 exception—named after an Internal Revenue Code section—that allows non-profit political groups to get unlimited donations.
The House passed a bill tightening this loophole last year, but the Senate failed to act. Grade: B minus.
No Child Left Behind: Congress passed Bush's education package in his first year in office, his signature domestic achievement. The law requires schools to measure students' academic progress through standardized tests.
Supporters say No Child has focused new attention and federal funding on poor schools that had passed failing students from one grade to the next.
Many teachers and school administrators, though, have criticized the program, saying it leads to an emphasis on rote memory instead of critical thinking. Governors complain they aren't getting enough money from Washington to implement the program. Bush is also facing a backlash from some conservative lawmakers, who criticize No Child as a Big Government intrusion. Grade: C.
Tobacco regulation: President Clinton announced in August 1996 that the Food and Drug Administration would regulate the manufacture, marketing and sale of cigarettes.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., followed Clinton 15 months later with a massive tobacco control bill. Despite much fanfare, his measure died in June 1998 after tying up the Senate for weeks.
States that had sued cigarette makers for the costs of treating sick smokers reached a $248 billion settlement in November 1998. The money was meant to be used for smoking prevention and cessation programs, but states have spent much of it on non-smoking-related needs.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in March 2000 that the FDA lacked legal authority to regulate tobacco. No new legislative proposal has emerged. Grade: C minus.
Welfare overhaul: Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on a pledge "to end welfare as we know it," but he initially resisted radical changes proposed by Republican lawmakers who gained control of Congress in the 1994 elections.
After 18 months of contentious negotiations, Clinton signed sweeping welfare legislation. It imposed a five-year limit on welfare benefits, required able-bodied recipients to go to work after two years and gave states job-training incentives.
By 2001, welfare rolls had been cut in half, and there is widespread agreement today that the changes have helped millions of poor people improve their lives. Grade: A.