WASHINGTON – Pushing immigration legislation through the Senate Judiciary Committee may wind up being the easiest job reform proponents achieve during what promises to be a long, drawn-out process.
It remains unclear if Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, has the votes necessary to meet the arduous 60-vote threshold required in the upper chamber to adopt the committee-approved measure. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is one of a handful of lawmakers looking to attach a “poison pill” amendment to the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.
Meanwhile the Republican-led House is piecing together its own legislation, which is expected to place greater emphasis on border security, setting the stage for a difficult conference committee.
“The bill includes very little, if anything, to improve the executive branch’s ability to enforce the law,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee and an opponent of the legislation. “No one disputes that this bill is legalization first, enforcement later. And, that’s unacceptable. And, I think if you read the polls, yes, immigration reform is very much desired by the American people, and it ought to be because the system is broken, but that’s pretty much based on us securing the borders.”
Grassley said he tried to strengthen the bill through the committee amendment process but consistently saw his efforts thwarted.
“Well, my message to the Senate and the House is that absent significant changes on the Senate floor, the House should take up their own process, develop their own product with input from their constituents, and work toward a conference on this bill,” Grassley said. “That will ensure that the bill benefits from the various checks and balances we have within the legislative process to reach the proper outcome.”
Proponents acknowledge they are hoping to attract 70 votes for the legislation, which could be cited as a bipartisan success. Reid said he intends to bring the legislation to the floor in June, shortly after lawmakers return to Washington from the Memorial Day work period.
Reid, appearing on the Nevada public affairs program To the Point this week, said he believes he’ll be able to corral the necessary votes.
“I think we have 60 votes,” Reid said. “Remember, we start out at 55 Democrats. I think the most I’ll lose is two or three. Let’s say I wind up with 52 Democrats. I only need eight Republicans, and I already have four, so that should be pretty easy.”
The four Republicans are the members of the “Gang of Eight” who joined four Democrats to piece together the legislation and stick with it through the committee process. The four are Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona.
In addition, proponents are making overtures to Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and John Cornyn (R-Texas). But Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), another member of the Gang of Eight, expressed doubts that the 60 votes are in reach.
“We don’t currently have 60 votes identified in the Senate,” Menendez said in an interview with Univision. “We need to add more votes on the floor. That means that the community in your state, in every state, should be contacting your state’s two U.S. senators saying that they want comprehensive immigration reform, that they are going to judge their political future based on this vote.”
And there remains concern over what form the final bill might take. Sessions maintains that the measure is “fundamentally unchanged and fatally flawed. It will not become law.”
“This bill is bad for workers, bad for taxpayers and—as immigration officers have pleaded for us to hear—a threat to public safety and the rule of law,” Sessions said. “It serves the special interests at the expense of the national interest.”
Sessions asserted that “amendments offered by Republicans to put enforcement first were all rejected” in committee.
“Sponsors of this legislation have said it will not significantly increase total immigration levels,” Sessions said. “But we have conclusively demonstrated that this bill would legalize 30 million immigrants over 10 years and provide legal status to many millions more temporary workers. This will be a hammer blow to the wages and employment opportunities of American workers—both immigrant and native born.”
As it stands, the Senate immigration reform bill creates a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who entered or remained in the country without proper documentation.
Under the bill, illegal immigrants who have resided in the U.S. since Dec. 13, 2011, must seek provisional legal status that allows them to work but renders them ineligible for federal benefits. They must pay a penalty, taxes and a processing fee and can only apply for permanent status after 10 years.
Employers would be required to implement the e-verify system to detect illegal workers. A new visa program for low-skilled workers would be developed and the Department of Homeland Security would be charged with developing a $4.5 billion plan to gain effective control of the porous Southern border with Mexico that halts at least 90 percent of those attempting to enter the country illegally.
House Republican leaders have indicated they are not thrilled with the Senate bill and may not pass omnibus legislation – preferring to break it up into pieces and voting up or down on various provisions. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), in a statement issued last week that included the signatures of other GOP leaders in the lower chamber, acknowledged “our nation’s immigration system is broken.” And while he applauds the progress made by the Senate, “there are numerous ways in which the House will approach the issue differently.”
“The House remains committed to fixing our broken immigration system, but we will not simply take up and accept the bill that is emerging in the Senate if it passes,” the statement read. “Rather, through regular order, the House will work its will and produce its own legislation. Enacting policy as consequential and complex as immigration reform demands that both chambers of Congress engage in a robust debate and amendment process.”
“Our nation’s immigration processes, border security, and enforcement mechanisms remain dysfunctional. The House goal is enactment of legislation that actually solves these problems and restores faith in our immigration system, and we are committed to continuing the work we’ve begun toward that goal in the weeks and months ahead.”