Thorny Issue

Moment of Truth Approaches for Immigration Reform

As the Senate prepares to vote on immigration reform, the bill’s path forward remains murky. Patricia Murphy reports.

Democrats and Republicans alike seem to agree that the thorny issue of immigration reform has its best chance in decades of passing the Senate and House and becoming law. But no one—not Hill staff, interest groups, or even members of Congress themselves—can say for sure how the bill gets done.

Like the frogs in a wheelbarrow that Speaker John Boehner famously compared his caucus to, even supporters of immigration reform have been for and against the evolving legislation so many times, it’s hard to keep track. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah) voted for the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but warned he’ll vote against it in the Senate unless his own amendments on back taxes get attached to it.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R–Idaho) bolted last week from the House group that’s been working on the issue for the last four years, but said he could ultimately vote for a bill if his health-care provisions are included.

Even Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Florida), who helped write the bill that the Senate begins voting on Tuesday, predicted last week that it won’t have 60 votes to pass without at least one crucial fix: tougher border-security measures. By Friday, after Latino activists staged a sit-in at his Miami office, Rubio told Univision that the 60 votes “are not there today, but I think they will be,” adding that border security remains critical to passing the bill.

So who is right? Rubio, who says the 60 votes only come with hardened American borders, or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–Nevada), who predicted that the legislation will easily meet the filibuster-proof threshold, but noted Friday that he’s keeping the amendment process slightly closed to prevent “monkey wrenches” from blowing it up?

Senate sources counting votes say Rubio is closer to right than Reid. Democrats believe most of their 54 members will support the bill, but expect two or three red-state Democrats will vote no, wary of supporting any immigration bill that will be seen as weaker than what, if anything, emerges from the House of Representatives. The Democrats seen as most likely to defect: those up for reelection in red states like Sens. Mark Pryor and Jon Tester and a group including Sens. Max Baucus, Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin, and Heidi Heitkamp, whom staffers call “wild cards.”

Those losses will likely be offset by three of the four Republicans in the Gang of Eight: Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who announced Sunday she will support the Senate bill, and possibly Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who have been positive about immigration reform in the past.

That gets the Senate to 58 or 59 votes. Even a 60-vote majority would get the bill through the Senate but would fail to launch the issue to the House with the momentum supporters say a 70-vote count would provide.

“It’s going to be a remarkable moment of truth,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform group. “When the vote gets called, how many Republicans will vote for it? Will it really be just eight Republicans in the U.S. Senate? Will it be 10 or 12? Will it be 20? Their viability as a national party depends on this issue.”

Rubio hasn’t said exactly what the tougher security measures have to look like to win over a critical mass of Republicans, but he has said that the GOP senators are looking for tough measures at the southern border, including a two-layered security system of fences and surveillance. He has also said Republicans will insist that the Obama administration not be given the flexibility in the bill to come up with a full border-security plan on its own. That plan, he says, should be left for members of Congress to decide.

Opponents of reform say no amendments to the Senate bill will make up for the plan to provide provisional legal status for the undocumented immigrants already in the United States while the border measures are put in place.

“The legislation offered by the ‘Gang of Eight’ says they fixed it. ‘Don’t worry. We’ve taken care of all that is needed. We have a plan that will work in the future and end the illegality,” Sen. Jeff Sessions said. “Well, it won’t do that. That’s the problem. It will definitely give amnesty today, immediate legal status for 11 million people today. But the policies of enforcement for the future are not fulfilled in this legislation.”

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One Senate Republican who has declared himself “ready to compromise” is Sen. Rand Paul, a surprising potential ally for Democrats who could also give Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, room to maneuver both in the Senate and at home in Kentucky, where he is up for reelection next year.

Paul told Fox News Sunday that he could support a path to citizenship under certain conditions, and that he could be an emissary to House Republicans if those conditions—including the addition of temporary work visas for new arrivals, which he says will improve the economy—are met.

“I am the conduit between the conservatives in the House who don’t want a lot of these things and more moderate people in the Senate who do want these things,” Paul said on Fox News Sunday.

“I want to make the bill work, but what they have in the Senate has zero chance of passing in the House. So, why not come to a conservative like myself and say, ‘He’s willing to work with you.’ Why not work with me to make the bill closer to what would be acceptable in the House?”

But it’s a different Paul—Rep. Paul Ryan—who people close to the process say has emerged to speak for House conservatives and to fill a growing power vacuum on the House side, where Speaker John Boehner is allowing his scattered caucus to draft several different versions of several different pieces of immigration reform.

“Paul Ryan has been phenomenally helpful,” said a senior staffer close to the negotiations of the House group. “He’s the one providing adult leadership in the room.”

The same staffer said it will ultimately be up to Boehner to decide what kind of bill, or bills, to bring to the House floor and whether he is willing to let a bill be a part of the mix that could pass, but without a majority of Republican votes. “We believe John Boehner wants immigration reform and wants to put this issue behind him, but is he willing to lose his job over it? Who knows.”