May 9, 2013
By Carrie Budoff Brown and Seung Min Kim
The Senate Gang of Eight made a series of overt attempts Thursday to win over Republicans on immigration reform, using the first day of Judiciary Committee debate to tighten border security measures on the bill.
None of the amendments impose drastic changes on the legislation. The most significant concession involved requiring the government to achieve “effective control” of the entire Southwestern border, not just high-risk areas.
The lead reform proponents don’t expect any single amendment to sway Republicans and guarantee Senate passage, but by accepting eight GOP amendments, Gang of Eight members attempted to send the message that they are sensitive to demands for an open committee process and stricter border security.
But the four members of the Gang of Eight who sit on the committee also held together to turn back amendments that they view as poison pills, effectively controlling the proceedings.
The two Republican Gang members sided with Democrats in rejecting Republican Texas Sen Ted Cruz’s bid to multiply agents and other resources along the border. The same coalition defeated Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley’s proposal to prohibit undocumented immigrants from gaining provisional legal status until the entire Southern border is deemed secure.
The Judiciary Committee markup could take weeks to complete, and the Gang of Eight will meet the day before every session to hash out strategy on committee amendments, said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
GOP senators not in the Gang weren’t persuaded by the overtures of accepting certain amendments and continued to focus on border security.
“The committee has voted down every serious border security amendment that’s been presented here today,” Cruz said shortly before the committee adjourned for the day. “The current draft represents merely a fig leaf on border security.”
Cruz’s comments set off the most heated exchange of the day as Republican and Democratic members of the Gang of Eight spoke up to defend the bill.
“Sen. Cruz is opposed to the path to citizenship,” Schumer said, adding that no amount of border enforcement would satisfy the Republican. “Let’s not keep bringing up this false issue that we do nothing on border security. Our bill is tough as nails.”
The panel approved by voice vote an amendment from Grassley that would set a higher bar on border security.
“If we pass the bill as is, there will be no pressure on this administration or a future administration or those … in Congress to secure the border,” Grassley said of the underlying bill, calling enforcement mechanisms in the legislation “weak.”
The original version of the Senate bill focused resources on “high-risk” sectors of the border where the Border Patrol captures 30,000 or more people annually.
The Grassley language says that the government must maintain “effective control” of the entire Southwestern border in each of the first five years after the bill is enacted. That means the Border Patrol must catch at least 90 percent of border crossers and maintain “persistent surveillance.”
If the benchmark isn’t met, a Southern Border Security Commission would be established to make recommendations to the president on how to achieve the border security goals. And another $2 billion would be made available to implement the recommendations.
The so-called trigger issue is a core component of the Gang of Eight bill. Under its plan, not one of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States could transition into a legal status until the Department of Homeland Security has laid out a strategy for the Southern border.
And most of those immigrants will not be allowed to apply for green cards until several security benchmarks — such as a mandatory E-Verify and electronic exit systems at ports of entry — are met.
The trigger is one of a myriad of details that Senate negotiators finessed over months of private talks. Schumer has said President Barack Obama had opposed the idea of a trigger, but senators viewed it as a necessary safeguard against a new wave of illegal entries into the country.
Next up is a Tuesday session focused on the path to citizenship, another major flash point in the debate.
It could also take up an amendment that would allow gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for green cards. The Gang of Eight is split on this proposal, and Republicans have threatened to oppose the bill if it passes.
Schumer said negotiators still haven’t resolved what to do on the gay partners amendment, formally called the Uniting American Families Act.
“I would like very much to see it in the bill, but we have to have a bill that has support to get UAFA passed,” Schumer said. “That’s the conundrum. Because if there’s no bill, there’s no UAFA either.”
He added the measure is keeping him up at night. “Look, this one is something … I worry about all the time,” Schumer told reporters during a break in the markup. “I’m a good sleeper, but I wake up in the morning thinking of these things, sometimes early in the morning.”
Overall on Thursday, the committee considered 32 amendments and adopted 21, almost all with a bipartisan vote, said Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
The committee also cleared a plan backed by Leahy and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) intended to give DHS more flexibility in how it uses funds set aside for border fencing.
After the committee adjourned, Cornyn said that senators didn’t accept any substantial changes to the bill — and those accepted won’t win his vote.
“I can’t support a bill that has big holes in the border security component,” Cornyn said.
Grassley said after the markup that the border security measures must go further to win over Republicans who care about the issue.
“I’ve got great hope that — maybe not by the time this gets through the Senate — but by the time it gets ready to go to the president, it will have strong border security,” Grassley said. “Or it isn’t going to go to the president.”