The night before Thursday's marathon committee markup, members of the Senate's Gang of Eight and their staffs huddled in a room in the Capitol to decide what amendments to their immigration bill they would let live—and what must die.
As a comprehensive immigration overhaul advances through the Senate, its chief architects will remain firmly in control of its fate. This week's drama at the Senate Judiciary Committee provided a valuable test run for the group, which must protect their bill from changes that undermine the principles they agreed on but accept enough suggestions from their colleagues to garner at least a 60-vote majority, if not more.
It’s that kind of advance planning that helped the gang survive its first major test Thursday: a hostile amendment offered by Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. The Grassley provision would have required that the entire southern border be under effective control for six months before illegal immigrants could register for provisional legal status. The current legislation requires only that a comprehensive strategy for border security be in place.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a gang member, spoke up first in defense of the current bill, followed by cosponsors Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. They joined with the remaining Democrats on the committee to defeat the Grassley amendment, 12-6.
The margin was not happenstance. Democrats, combined with Flake and Graham of the Gang of Eight, outnumber opponents by a 2-1 margin on the Judiciary panel. It’s why the toughest test for the bill in the Senate will come not in committee, but on the floor after the Memorial Day recess. Still, the committee process is an important exercise as the gang attempts to maintain solidarity and begin broadening out support.
“The eight of us are convinced that we’ve done a very good job of securing the border. That’s not to say it’s perfect, and that’s not to say other suggestions wouldn’t be listened to and we’d have an open mind to adopting them,” Schumer told reporters.
The group did accept eight Republican amendments on Thursday, including six from Grassley and Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and John Cornyn, R-Texas (two were from Flake, a member of the gang).
“But we do have a bottom line, which is that the path to citizenship has to be based on specific achievable goals,” Schumer said. ... “To have a sort of elastic goal that the next president, whoever he or she is, could use to block the path to citizenship—that would be a deal-breaker.”
Each evening, the gang will reconvene before the Judiciary Committee meets to analyze the next day’s slew of amendments and decide, collectively, what stays and what goes.
“I’m sure there’ll be some very inventive amendments by people who want to kill the bill,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leader among the Republicans in the group because he helped craft the last major comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2007. “We’ve seen that before. But we can recognize what’s a poison pill and what’s legitimate.”
McCain said the group plans to meet daily once the bill hits the floor, as well. “We have to. We have to,” he said. “I’ve been around this track before.”
At that point, the gang will also discuss which upcoming amendments from the entire chamber might be deal-breakers for the Republican or Democratic factions of the Senate, thus threatening their 60-vote majority. They’ll relay that information to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who will run the floor schedule.
Reid—who speaks multiple times a day with Durbin and Schumer, the No. 2 and 3 Democrats in the Senate—has not committed to how open the amendment process will be on the floor. But he will work closely with the members of the gang, and he is expected to try to ensure the bill passes the upper chamber. As Nevada’s senior senator, Reid represents a state with a fast-growing Hispanic population and has vowed to press forward with a comprehensive immigration fix.
If the system works as planned, the gang will protect the core tenets of its legislation while garnering votes. But there are tough tests ahead. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has filed an amendment to extend portions of the immigration bill to same-sex couples. Leahy hasn’t pledged to offer the amendment, and it wouldn’t come up until at least next week, but if it does it puts the Democratic members of the Gang of Eight in a tough spot. Their Republican counterparts have said the amendment would sink the bill.
“I would like very much to see it in the bill, but we have to have a bill that has support to get [LGBT provisions] passed,” Schumer told reporters. “That’s the conundrum.”
This article appears in the May 10, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.