‘Our goal is to get 70 votes,’ said Chuck Schumer. | AP Photo
Getting immigration reform to the Senate floor took hours of negotiations and committee hearings, hundreds of amendments, a careful orchestration of public statements and backroom pressure to hold the Gang of Eight together.
That was the easy part.
Many of the almost two dozen Republicans identified as possible supporters by the Gang of Eight are demanding changes that would make the bill significantly more conservative. They want stricter border security, tighter control on government benefits for newly-documented immigrants and tougher requirements along the pathway to citizenship.
Go too far on any of those elements, and liberal Democrats — who aren’t thrilled with many aspects of the bill already — begin to pull away.
Meanwhile, a handful of conservative Democrats, who have been asked to cast several tough votes this year already, won’t commit to the bill unless they secure many of the same fixes that Republicans are seeking.
And even if the Senate approves a bill, the route through the House is a puzzle for reform proponents. Their only game plan, at this point, is to run up the numbers in the Senate, sending an emphatic message to the House that it needs to act.
“Our goal is to get 70 votes. It is going to take a lot of work,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leader of the Gang of Eight. “This is one of the most important bills to pass for America. It’s one of the hardest bills to pass for America. And we got a long way to go, we don’t have any doubts about that. But so far, at each step of the road where it’s been difficult, we’ve been able to overcome.”
No one’s expecting final commitments until just before the vote as the senators look to extract compromises and concessions. But Schumer said the Gang of Eight would meet Thursday to begin plotting out a strategy for the floor debate, which is expected to begin soon after senators return from the Memorial Day recess.
The group heads into the next phase of the fight with the strength that comes from sticking together.
Predictions that a drawn-out debate would kill the bill haven’t come to pass. It’s been more than four months since the Gang of Eight released its principles and more than one month since it offered the bill. And coming out of a three-week-long Judiciary Committee markup Tuesday, the legislation picked up one more Republican vote — Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah — although his support isn’t guaranteed on the floor.
The debate has yet to turn unusually heated, in part because it’s been repeatedly overshadowed by a string of headline-grabbing news events including the Boston Marathon bombings, the Benghazi investigation, the IRS scandal, and the Oklahoma tornadoes.
This has all given the Gang of Eight a chance to start on favorable terrain, with undecided senators as open-minded as they may ever be to tackling the controversial issue.
“I want to see an immigration reform bill, I really do,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “I think everybody up here does. I think that the gap between all parties is a lot narrower than it was.”
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) was non-committal Wednesday when asked if GOP leaders would try to defeat the plan and whip their conference against the measure. And although Cornyn himself voted against the measure in committee, he pointed to the desire of a significant number of GOP senators who want to see a bill pass the chamber.
“I would tell you that I think the overwhelming feeling of our conference is that status quo is unacceptable,” Cornyn said. “And while this bill that’s come out of the Judiciary Committee is not something I can support — and I think others will have similar objections — that the Senate is a place where we can offer improvements and hopefully fix some of those things. So we intend to see the process through.”
Such comments give reform proponents hope that the bill can win a super-majority, compelling the House to act on a similar measure.
“We certainly need 60, I think we’re close to that,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Gang of Eight. “I think we will lose a handful at most on the Democratic side, but the Republican side will have to come through for us to get higher numbers.”
The roster of questionable Democrats include Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Begich of Alaska.
“Securing the border is important, making sure English is part of the equation is important, making sure the path to citizenship is a realistic one and is not just a gift, amnesty,” said Tester, who voted against an immigration overhaul bill in 2007.
But he sounded more open to the pathway to citizenship this time around.
“Right now, there’s amnesty by default,” Tester said. “It would be good to get the problem solved.”
On the Republican side, the list of targets identified by immigration advocates and congressional aides could be divided into tiers.
The Republican senators who appear most likely to support the bill other the than four GOP members of the Gang of Eight include Collins, Murkowski, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
At the lower end of the first tier are senators like Hatch, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
The second tier of senators, who are less likely to back the bill but could be swayed, includes Risch, John Barrasso of Wyoming, John Thune of South Dakota, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, John Hoeven of North Dakota and Mike Johanns of Nebraska. This is a group that could vote yes if Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a key member of the Gang of Eight, is still on board and other conservatives are falling into line.
Then there is a coveted subset of tea party stars, including Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, who would be as influential as anything else in wooing House Republicans but difficult to land.
The Republicans in the Gang of Eight will have to lean on their conference to back the bill, while trying to appease their concerns. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a Gang of Eight member, said the group would divide up the list of targets to lobby for support.
“Obviously, we’ll be doing that,” Flake said. “It’s possible [to get to 70], but we’re going to have make some changes to the bill to do that — I think we know that.”
Indeed, swing vote senators are demanding a series of changes and votes on amendments before they can support the plan.
Portman said he needs to be “convinced the enforcement is real,” particularly on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Right now, he said, the bill lacks “teeth” in that regard.
“I’m convinced unless you deal with the magnet, which is jobs, you’re not going to be avoid repeating the same process again as we had to do after 1986,” Portman said.
Johanns said the pathway to citizenship remains a “tough issue” for him, but he said, “I haven’t closed the door yet” to supporting the plan.
“You get one chance at this every – 10, 20 years,” Johanns said.
Still, there are several positive signs for proponents of the bill that those who opposed the plan in 2007 were now signaling a new openness to the measure this time around.
“I believe that conservatives should be leading the charge to create a legal immigration system,” said Alexander, who opposed the 2007 bill but said he was “encouraged” by this proposal. “I’m doing my best to create an environment so we can succeed in June so I can vote for the bill.”
Alexander added there was “a lot of difference” between now and 2007, pointing to the involvement of Rubio and that that it’s “become more obvious that we have to deal with it.”
“I would like to be able to a cast a vote against de facto amnesty and a vote for a legal immigration system,” Alexander said.