Crunch time for lobbyists on immigration

Washington’s lobbying powers are bearing down on the Senate in an attempt to push immigration reform over the finish line. [WATCH VIDEO]

Business lobbyists, labor leaders and activists of all stripes are swarming Capitol Hill to ensure that senators don’t turn back from the biggest overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in decades.

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“Starting today, it’s real,” said Ali Noorani, executive director for the National Immigration Forum. “We have a comprehensive immigration bill going through the amendment process.”

The bill cleared the first hurdle on Tuesday when senators voted overwhelmingly to open debate. But the stiffest tests are yet to come, as Republicans push for changes on border security that Democrats say could sink the bill.

Many advocates are focused on securing enough Republican support to create a filibuster-proof majority, and they are turning up the pressure on senators with a barrage of events and advertising.

“At this point in time, it’s all about getting to 60 votes,” Noorani said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate’s Gang of Eight who helped draft the immigration bill, told law enforcement officials, church leaders and business executives on Wednesday that he would need their help to move the bill through a gauntlet of amendments.

“We still have a lot of work to do. They are five Republicans committed to this bill — that’s it,” Schumer said.

“And that’s where you come in. You have links to many on the Republican side. ... There’s a whole bunch [of senators] who would like to vote for the bill, and they are getting a lot of pressure from some in their constituencies to vote ‘no.’ And you are our antidote to that.”

Schumer made the remarks at an event organized by the National Immigration Forum, which has been actively supporting the bill through its “Bibles, Badges and Business” project.

The forum sent more than 100 people to congressional offices on Wednesday to lobby for immigration reform, providing just one example of how the push has progressed from the secretive, closed-door talks that senators held earlier this year.

Select groups such as by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO helped negotiate the fine print of the Gang of Eight’s bill in the early stages, and lobbying efforts began to intensify after the legislative text was released in April.

Now that it’s crunch time in the Senate, more groups are announcing ad buys, organizing fly-in visits to Washington and coordinating rallies on Capitol Hill to push their priorities.

Millions of dollars have already been spent trying to influence the debate. A Kantar Media CMAG study of 2013 television ad buys through June 10 shows that supporters of immigration reform have spent more than $2.4 million, outmatching their opponents by 3-1. Forty-one percent of the supporters’ ads have been in Spanish.

Prominent Republicans, including former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, are backing the immigration reform push.

“Please know this is not going to be won in Washington. This is going to be won in your district and in your state,” Barbour said at the same event with Schumer.

Barbour will continue to lead the charge. He is scheduled to appear on a panel hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center on Thursday with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to tout immigration reform.

Other high-profile Republicans figures are also stressing the need for immigration reform. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) appeared at a National Association of Manufacturers event on Wednesday to discuss the issue. Economist Doug Holtz-Eakin was scheduled to be there, with Gregory Page, Cargill’s chairman and CEO, joining via videoconference from Minneapolis.

Labor unions are stepping up their lobbying as well. In a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, Schumer and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) spoke to more than 60 local union leaders who were in town to lobby for the Gang of Eight bill.

“Senators are making the key decisions on the future of immigration over the next couple of weeks, and we want to be here to try to influence those decisions,” said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s director of government affairs.

The AFL-CIO plans to run online and television ads in states like Nevada, Alaska and Arizona in support of the Senate bill. Another heavyweight in labor — the Service Employees International Union — has gone up with a seven-figure advertising campaign on cable networks.

The pressure tactics are also coming from major conservative groups. Crossroads GPS, which is affiliated with GOP strategist Karl Rove, launched $100,000 in online and print ads supporting immigration reform.

Several groups will be looking for changes to the bill. Gay-rights organizations will be backing an amendment filed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that will let U.S. citizens help bring in their same-sex partners to the country.

“Immigration Equality is continuing our advocacy for an inclusive bill, and will do everything we can to help Senator Leahy rally the 60 votes needed on the floor,” said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the group.

Emily Saliers of the band The Indigo Girls is joining the group’s lobbying team on Thursday to help push for the amendment in House and Senate briefings.

Conservative groups are pushing back against the overall bill, which could draw away Republican votes. The Heritage Foundation is spending $100,000 on online ads that criticize the Senate legislation.

“We believe the public deserves full disclosure on the immigration issue. Some politicians and commentators are trying to spin amnesty as a pathway to citizenship,” said Genevieve Wood, a spokeswoman for Heritage.

Both sides will be mobilizing their lobbying corps as the Senate tries to wrap up work on the immigration bill before the July 4 recess.

“I would urge you to take that extra step. Just don’t make one phone call — make four or five,” Schumer said to activists at the forum event. “We’re close, we’re close and you can help bring us over the goal line.”