Senate immigration bill authors say Cruz wanted legislation to pass

Greg Nash

Two of the Republican senators who with Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes Rubio faces Trump-like challenger in primary Rubio on VP: 'It's too late for that' MORE (R-Fla.) authored 2013’s comprehensive immigration reform bill say they believe Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzO'Malley gives Trump a nickname: 'Chicken Donald' Va. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes Our most toxic export: American politick MORE (R-Texas) offered amendments to improve their legislation.

Arizona Sens. John McCainJohn McCainMarines reignite debate on women in combat Gun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA Report: Prominent neoconservative to fundraise for Clinton MORE and Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeMcConnell quashes Senate effort on guns Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns MORE say they think Cruz wanted the “Gang of Eight” bill to pass, despite his arguments today that he was always an opponent of the bill.

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The legislation — and Cruz’s motivation in offering amendments at the time — has become a flashpoint in the Republican presidential race, where Cruz and Rubio are battling for support from grassroots conservatives. Many GOP primary voters are strongly opposed to efforts to increase immigration.

The 2013 bill created a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, and Cruz argues Rubio’s support for it highlights a key difference between the two candidates.

Rubio’s counterargument is that the amendments offered by Cruz at the time show their positions on immigration really aren’t that different. While Cruz was opposed to the broader bill, he backed amendments that increased legal immigration.

Cruz’s allies argues that his amendments were “poison pills” designed to undercut support from the larger piece of legislation, but the remarks from Flake and McCain — a frequent critic of Cruz — offer support for Rubio’s position.

McCain (Ariz.), the lead Republican author, said he assumed Cruz would have voted for the immigration bill had the Senate adopted Cruz’s proposal to double the number of permissible green cards and increase H-1B visas for skilled workers by 500 percent. 

“You can only take people by their words. His words were clear that passage of that amendment would improve the chances of passage of the bill. He made that clear and he made both on the floor and off the floor,” McCain said Thursday. 

Cruz’s amendment failed, and he ultimately voted against the reform legislation.

Fourteen Senate Republicans backed the bill, including Rubio.

Had Cruz’s amendment been adopted, McCain said he thinks Cruz would have voted yes as well. 

“I assume so because he said passage of that amendment would assure passage of the bill,” he said.

Cruz’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Texas senator was grilled about his position on the Gang of Eight bill during an interview late Wednesday with Bret Baier of Fox News.

“The fact that I introduced an amendment to remove part of the Gang of Eight bill, doesn’t mean I support the rest of the Gang of Eight bill. The Gang of Eight bill was a mess, it was a terrible bill,” Cruz said.

Baier challenged Cruz on that point.

“You said if this amendment were to pass the chances of this bill passing into law would increase dramatically,” Baier said, noting a few weeks later on the Senate floor that Cruz said “this amendment is the compromise that can pass.”

Cruz reiterated that didn’t mean he supported other aspects of the bill. 

Cruz’s allies have pointed out that Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsTrump hopes for boost from Brexit vote GOP senators: Brexit vote a wake-up call Sessions warns of 'radical' Clinton immigration policy MORE (R-Ala.), an opponent of the broader bill, voted in favor of the Cruz amendments. Like Cruz, they say Sessions saw the amendments as a way to kill the underlying measure.

Addressing reporters on Thursday in Las Vegas, Cruz compared his amendment to a bluff in poker.

"Listen, the Democrats and the establishment Republicans who supported the Gang of Eight, they claimed they were all about, they cared for the people who were here illegally.

“And so that amendment, I introduced an amendment that made anyone here illegally permanently ineligible for citizenship.” 

“By exposing the hypocrisy, by calling their bluff, we won. We defeated amnesty. We beat it,” Cruz added.

PolitiFact, a truth-in-politics project sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald, backed Cruz in a recent article. 

It rated Rubio’s claim that Cruz supported “legalizing people who are in this country illegally” as “mostly false.”

PolitiFact noted that Cruz’s amendment would have stripped the pathway to citizenship from the comprehensive reform bill and would have allowed illegal immigrants to apply for work permits and then for permanent residency after 10 years.  

“It’s a stretch for Rubio to label Cruz as a supporter of legalization when he was an ardent critic of the overall bill for months and voted against it. Cruz’s amendment appeared to be a legislative tactic,” it wrote.  

But McCain and Flake say they thought Cruz was trying to build a broader coalition of support by finding a way to grant illegal immigrants legal status, if not a pathway to citizenship. 

Flake said that in 2013, Cruz said his amendment was not a poison pill. 

“It's tough to maintain now that when you said this wasn't a poison pill, that you wanted the legislation to pass, that that's not what you wanted,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another coauthor of the bill. 

“He didn't want there to be a path to citizenship, but he did want those who are here illegally to have a way to obtain legal status. That was one of the amendments that he offered,” Flake added.

McCain is backing Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns MORE’s (R-S.C.) bid for the White House, while Flake has not endorsed a GOP candidate.Graham is the fourth Republican author of the bill. Sens. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA This week: Senate showdown over gun control Dems push vulnerable GOP senators on gun control MORE (N.Y.), Bob MenendezRobert MenendezOvernight Cybersecurity: Senate narrowly rejects expanding FBI surveillance powers Senate narrowly rejects new FBI surveillance Kaine, Murphy push extension of Iran sanctions MORE (N.J.), Dick DurbinDick DurbinSenate Dems link court fight to Congressional Baseball Game Dems: Immigration decision will 'energize' Hispanic voters Senate Dems rip GOP on immigration ruling MORE (Ill.) and Michael BennetMichael BennetTed Cruz chooses sides in Colorado Senate primary The Trail 2016: Reversal of fortunes Senate compromises on Russian rocket engines MORE (Colo.) were the four Democrats in the Gang of Eight.

The question of what immigration reforms Cruz supported two years ago became a fierce point of disagreement during Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas.

After Cruz accused Rubio of supporting “amnesty” because of his role in crafting the 2013 legislation, Rubio countered, “Ted, you support legalizing people who are in this country illegally.”

Cruz pushed back, accusing Rubio of trying to “muddy the waters” and “raise confusion” about their differences on immigration. 

Rubio has distanced himself from the 2013 bill, repeatedly saying he now believes that the border must be secured before any further action on immigration reform can be considered.

With Democrats viewing Rubio as perhaps the strongest Republican challenger to Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPerez mum on VP speculation McConnell: Trump needs to 'catch up fast' on fundraising Rubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes MORE in 2016, they have been happy to talk up Rubio’s work on the “Gang of Eight” bill, which died in the House.

“He was not only totally committed, he was in that room with us,” Schumer told CNN last month. “His fingerprints are all over that bill. It has a lot of Rubio imprints.”

Cruz, who is beating Trump in polls of Iowa, last month unveiled a new immigration proposal to freeze legal immigration until the economy improves. It would place a moratorium on H-1B visas for highly skilled workers. 

McCain accused him of flip-flopping.

“Sen. Cruz has to explain what has been a dramatic change in his approach to immigration legislation. There are fundamental contractions. Perhaps he can explain those,” McCain said.

Jonathan Swan contributed.