Six amendments to watch in Senate immigration reform fight

Senators are girding for a contentious floor fight next week over more than 100 immigration reform amendments that will be crucial to determining whether the chamber approves comprehensive legislation. 

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has warned members to prepare for a long slog in dealing with the deluge of amendments — including the prospect of weekend votes — in a bid to pass immigration reform before the July 4 recess. 

The bill’s authors, known as the Gang of Eight, have said they want their legislation to pass with at least 70 votes in order to send a strong message to the House that it should take up and pass the Senate bill.

Here are six keys to the coming debate: 

The RESULTS amendment: 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is now considered crucial in reaching that 70-vote mark, but he will likely demand that the Senate adopt his RESULTS amendment that would strengthen border security provisions within the underlying bill. 

S. 744 would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, toughen border security, create a guest worker program and boost high-skilled immigration.

But some Republicans have complained that the legislation would provide amnesty in 10 years for the nearly 11 million undocumented residents before strengthening border security, thus repeating the mistakes of the last comprehensive immigration reform in 1986. 

The bill makes permanent legal residence contingent the Department of Homeland Security having 100 percent situational awareness at every segment of the Southern border and a 90 percent apprehension rate of those illegally crossing. Cornyn’s amendment would require that those standards be met before anyone is given legal status, but Democrats argue that could take years.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Democratic member of the Gang of Eight, has spoken against Cornyn’s amendment. Schumer says the Texas senator's border security goals aren’t specific enough.

“We certainly can improve the border, but we cannot improve the border and put in place triggers that are not specific and achievable,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday. 

“You can measure whether there are 20 drones at the border. Your can measure whether we have X miles of fence. But if you say then that [effectiveness] has to be at this certain rate every year, you’re taking away the path to citizenship.”

Although the Senate considered the immigration bill all week, it voted on only one amendment. Reid warned that the slow pace would pick up when senators return Monday. 

Same-sex couples amendment

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a same-sex marriage amendment to the immigration reform bill that would give equal protection to immigrants who are in same-sex marriages. His amendment would allow the partner of a U.S. citizen to apply for a green card the same way heterosexual married couples are able to do.

Leahy planned to offer his amendment during the committee markup process, but he withdrew it after Republicans and the Democratic members of the Gang of Eight threatened to vote against it.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a leading conservative in the Gang of Eight, has threatened he would no longer support the bill if Leahy’s amendment succeeds.

Rubio’s English language amendment

Rubio has offered an amendment that would require immigrants with provisional legal status, who are 16 or older to read, write and speak English. This would require that immigrants speak English before they’d be eligible to apply for a green card rather than taking the English proficiency test right before gaining citizenship.

Some Republicans argued that the Gang of Eight bill was offering undocumented immigrants amnesty because it wasn’t hard enough to start the pathway to citizenship. Rubio’s amendment bumps up the English-language requirement by a few years in the process.

‘Trust but Verify’

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has introduced a “Trust but Verify” amendment to the immigration reform bill, which would put more power in the hands of Congress rather than relying on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to enforce border security measures. 

Some Republicans have suggested that the bill gives the DHS too much say over whether the border is secure, leaving Congress powerless to stop the bill’s amnesty program if security measures aren’t met.

Paul’s amendment makes immigration reform conditional on Congress voting on whether the border is secure, requires completion of a border fence in five years and includes a protection against the federal government establishing a national identification card system for citizens.

Paul said his amendment would force DHS to “follow through on the broken promise” of a secure border and an effective visa tracking system.

Hatch amendments

Earlier this week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) warned the Gang of Eight that if his four amendments to the immigration reform bill weren’t included that he wouldn’t support final passage. He said he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t take “stiffing lightly.”

Hatch was one of three Republicans who voted for the bill in committee, but he said his support for final passage was contingent on further changes being made to the legislation.

“As I told my colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, my support in committee did not guarantee my support for the bill on the floor unless further changes were made to make this bill better,” Hatch said.

His amendments would ensure people on the pathway to citizenship aren’t granted federal welfare benefits, including ObamaCare, for at least five years after gaining citizenship. He also wants to strengthen language in the bill that calls for immigrants to pay back taxes.

Building a Fence

An amendment from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) would require that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) build 350 miles of southern border fencing before the government could grant provisional immigrant status. Another 350 miles of fencing would have to be constructed before those with provisions legal status could apply for a green card.

Thune said his amendment was necessary because the current bill only makes “promises” of enforcement. He said building 350 miles of fence “would be a tangible demonstration that we are serious about border security.”

The Gang of Eight bill includes an additional $6.5 billion for border enforcement measures, but most of the funding is for new technology such as drones, sensors, cameras and helicopters, as opposed to more fencing.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, called Thune’s fence “dumb.”

“I will vote against Sen. Thune’s amendment because I am not going to waste taxpayer money on a dumb fence, and that is what his fence would be,” Landrieu said. “We need to build a smart fence.”