The outlines of the coming immigration debate have been set but now lawmakers must hunker down and write legislation. And that process could be a long one.
There may not be any legislative movement on any of the ideas presented this week until March, the deadline that the eight senators who signed onto the immigration reform principles Monday have set for themselves to deliver a bill. Obama pledged in his speech Tuesday that he wouldn’t send legislative language to the Hill unless Congress fails to move in a timely fashion.
And while Patrick Leahy has already scheduled a hearing on immigration reform for Feb. 13, the day after Obama’s planned State of the Union address, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman is insisting that any legislation proceed through normal order, and that means through his panel.
“Chairman Leahy has agreed that we're going to mark up an immigration bill,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the members of the bipartisan Senate gang.
Other work on immigration is happening on the sidelines too – in part as insurance against the potential failure of comprehensive reform.
Another influential, bipartisan group of lawmakers – 10 this time – introduced legislation today on a more narrow issue -- increasing visas for highly skilled workers. That crew is using the bill as a marker, defining the kinds of high-skilled immigration reforms they want to see in a comprehensive package and creating a placeholder bill should the larger reform talks fall apart.
It was no accident that the 10 co-sponsors of the visa reform bill included GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Gang of Eight, as well as five members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rubio put it this way on the Senate floor today: "This bill is not in competition with any other effort. It complements it. In fact, it’s an indispensable part of it."
Allowing more highly educated immigrants to stay in the country has always had broad, bipartisan support and gives both Democrats and Republicans a reason to support a comprehensive bill that includes other provisions each side finds tougher to swallow. As one Democratic tech industry vet put it, “You need the sweetener of some of this tech stuff to get the votes to pass this other comprehensive stuff.”
But should the comprehensive reform fail – yet again – the tech community, which benefits most from the proposal, will be ready with a bill that could give everyone a quick, painless political win.
A group in the House is also working behind closed doors on legislation, but they won’t unveil plans while the chamber is out this week. They are not even sure yet whether they’ll offer legislative language or just principles, according to a congressional staffer who is not authorized to speak on the record about the negotiations.
The House plan, though, is expected to contain the same core elements as proposals offered by the Senate group and the president, including an employment verification system, border security, a path to legalization, and reform to the legal immigration system. Plus, it will be an attempt at comprehensive reform – setting up a sure fight within the GOP between lawmakers backing an overhaul and those preferring a piecemeal approach.