It’s a good time to be Orrin Hatch. Just 11 months ago, the senator from Utah was battling a primary challenger for the seat he had held for six terms, seeking to avoid the same fate as his Republican former colleagues, Sens. Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett. He survived—and returned to Washington to serve out what he says is his final term, one that could prove consequential.
Hatch stands at the center of the immigration debate as the best shot for the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” to pick up a Republican vote for its bill. If he signs on—a decision predicated in part on whether the Senate Judiciary Committee votes to adopt several of his amendments on high-skilled immigrants—Hatch would likely be the only GOP member to join two Gang of Eight Republicans on the committee, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, in supporting the package.
“I don’t think anyone wants to pass this out of committee with just the two Gang of Eight Republicans voting for it,” a GOP Senate aide said. “Winning Senator Hatch’s support would be a big step towards having a bill that can become law, and Senator Hatch has made it clear that his support is contingent on improving the H-1B visas, which has been a longtime concern of his.”
That gives Hatch a great deal of leverage in pushing his amendments, many of which seek to increase the availability of, and ease of access to, H-1B visas for high-skilled workers and the companies that hire them. He has already put his mark on the legislation in his own way: He’s one of four senators who helped negotiate the bill’s provisions dealing with agricultural workers.
At the same time, as the legislation moves through committee markup, Hatch has become the leading advocate for the high-tech sector. He has a long history of working on the issue of high-skilled immigration, including a bill he authored earlier this year with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Christopher Coons, D-Del., that is partially incorporated in the Gang of Eight’s legislation.
Robert Hoffman, senior vice president for government affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council, described Hatch as one of the few senators with a deep understanding of the industry, immigration policy, and the Senate. If his amendments are adopted, it could help persuade the industry to become a major lobbying player for the bill’s passage.
“We’ve always been in favor of the process moving forward, but the level of enthusiasm for the bill is very mixed within my industry,” Hoffman said. “Our hope is that we can get the changes that Senator Hatch is seeking, so that we can be more united and more vocal about the substance of this legislation.”
Accepting the amendments, however, will test the bonds of the Gang of Eight members. Member Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has what he calls “profound” differences with Hatch on the issue; he worries that the increase in visas could put American workers at a disadvantage.
The gang members have pledged to vote together to protect the bill’s core principles, so they would be hard-pressed to abandon Durbin’s concerns merely to appease Hatch. But the quest to get at least 60 votes in the Senate seems nearly impossible without his support.
Hatch would be proof that the bill has momentum and that it might be able to attract GOP support beyond the four negotiators who crafted the package. “The group looks at Hatch as a bellwether, but not necessarily to influence specific members,” a Democratic aide said.
Whether Hatch can bring along more votes is a matter for debate, because the Senate is increasingly a place where it’s easier for a single lawmaker to stop a bill in its tracks than to get it passed by bringing others on board (see: Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and gun-sale background checks).
Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, got to know Hatch while he was working for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Although Hatch says he came to the Senate in part to oppose Kennedy, the two went on to form a close friendship and to craft scores of bipartisan bills together, including the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Americans With Disabilities Act. “He’s well poised to serve as an intermediary between the right flank and those precious few that are left who will cut deals,” Manley said.
But can Hatch still strike those kinds of deals in the polarized climate of today’s Congress? Eric Ueland, who was chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, said it’s too soon to tell but that no one should count Hatch out. “The United States Senate is far different in 2013 than it was in 2006 and 2007, and Senator Hatch’s role in 2013 is far different than 2006 and 2007,” Ueland said. “I think it’s untested and unproven that he doesn’t have influence in the new situation.”
Hatch warns that without his proposed modifications, the Senate bill will never make it through the House. But if he gets his way, he vows to stump for the legislation. “You bet your life I’ll get out and hustle, just like the Gang of Eight is doing, and hopefully be of help to them,” he said. He also expects to be named to the conference committee if the House and Senate pass measures that need to be reconciled.
It’s clear that Hatch, in the final term of a 36-year career in Washington, sees immigration as a bit of unfinished business, even if it may not be a signature accomplishment. “I’ve passed a lot of legislation that’s really made a difference in this country, so this would just be another one,” he said. “It would be important to me.”
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