Poison pills enter bruising Senate battle over immigration reform

Published on June 12th, 2013

By Stephen Dinan
The Washington Times

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Senators headed off a filibuster Tuesday and officially brought the immigration reform bill to the chamber floor, marking the first time since 2007 that the full, thorny issue has been back in front of Congress — and with lawmakers anticipating plenty of hurdles ahead.

Within the first two hours, lawmakers had filed 44 amendments to the 1,075-page bill. Among those proposed changes are potential poison pills to grant immigration benefits to American citizens’ gay partners, and to make illegal immigrants have to wait until the borders are deemed secure before they can get any legal status.

In addition to the hot-button social issues amendments were other nuts-and-bolts proposals that are no less contentious, such as where to set the level for guest-workers who would be allowed into the country to compete for jobs, or whether to make English the official language of the U.S.

With the bill now officially before the Senate, the question is which of those amendments will be allowed up for a vote. The pressure there is on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who has said he will allow a little latitude but warned that he would have little patience for those he thinks are trying to undercut the bill rather than working sincerely to improve it.

“Be very, very careful of senators who have no intention of voting for this bill, zero, but they have this wonderful amendment they want to offer to improve the bill, understanding, as I do — and I hope you folks also understand this — they have no intention of voting for the bill no matter what happens on amendments,” Mr. Reid told reporters.

Mr. Reid’s heavy hand in controlling amendments helped derail a 2007 immigration bill.

Mr. Reid is again intent on protecting the crux of the immigration deal, which was worked out by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators, that offers illegal immigrants quick legalization but withholds the full path to citizenship until the government spends more money on border security, creates a new verification system to check workers, and begins to track entries and exits at airports and seaports.

That deal, as it stands, cannot pass the chamber, said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who was part of the Gang of Eight and is considered key to selling the bill to conservatives.

Mr. Rubio said the legislation needs stiffer border security, better checks of visitors entering and leaving the country, and more stringent English-language requirements.

Under the bill, illegal immigrants who eventually apply for permanent residency must demonstrate that they understand English, or must show that they have enrolled in classes to learn the language.

Mr. Rubio said allowing immigrants to check a box by enrolling in classes is a loophole. He said he would offer an amendment striking that option, which would mean anyone seeking full legal residency would have to prove that they understand English.

“This is one of the bill’s shortcomings that came to light, which we can now fix,” Mr. Rubio said.

That is not the only language fight brewing.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, introduced an amendment that would let businesses declare English-only policies in their workplaces, and another that would make English the official language of the U.S.

Designating the official language polls exceptionally well with voters, but proved to be contentious when Congress debated immigration reform in 2006 and 2007.

The 82-15 vote Tuesday to head off a filibuster marked an auspicious start for this year’s debate. In a similar vote in 2007, supporters got just 69 votes.

The difference this year was that far more Republicans are eager to at least hold the debate, with many of them feeling that their political futures depend on finding a way to reach out to Hispanic voters who view the immigration issue as a litmus test.

“This overwhelming vote — a majority of both parties — starts this bill off on just the right foot,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

Now the focus will be on about 20 Republicans who voted to begin the debate but who are likely to want to see major changes before they support the final product.

One of those is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who said Tuesday that the legislation has “serious flaws.”

He seemed to accept the legalization of illegal immigrants, saying his concerns lie chiefly with how the bill handles border security and with the taxpayer benefits that newly legalized illegal immigrants may be eligible — such as tax credits.

“I’m going to need more than an assurance from [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano, for instance, that the border is secure to feel comfortable about the situation on the border,” Mr. McConnell said.

He said he would support an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, to require the border to be secured before illegal immigrants can gain initial legal status.

Mr. Reid has declared that a poison pill.

Then there’s the gay-rights amendment from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. While federal law doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, his amendment would grant immigration benefits to partners in states that perform such unions.

“Seeking equal protection under our laws for the LGBT community is the right thing to do,” Mr. Leahy said in a statement.

Mr. Leahy made a similar move in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, but withdrew the amendment at the last moment. Although he was committed to the issue, he said, he didn’t want to threaten to bring down the entire bill over gay-rights questions.

Offering it on the floor is less dangerous because it likely will take 60 votes to add it to the bill — a threshold he is unlikely to achieve. Seeking a vote now would give him a chance to take a stand without fear of derailing the full bill.

Some of the Catholic and Evangelical leaders that are supporting the immigration bill had warned they could withdraw their support over the gay-rights issue.

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