Senate immigration bill authors say Cruz wanted legislation to pass

Senate immigration bill authors say Cruz wanted legislation to pass
© Greg Nash

Two of the Republican senators who with Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioCapitol Police arrest 40 during healthcare protests New Alexandra Pelosi documentary brings together GOP, Dem members Senators urge Trump to do right thing with arms sales to Taiwan MORE (R-Fla.) authored 2013’s comprehensive immigration reform bill say they believe Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzKoch-backed group launches new ads on tax reform Healthcare wish lists: What moderates, conservatives want Overnight Healthcare: GOP infighting erupts over bill | How Republican governors could bring down ObamaCare repeal | Schumer asks Trump to meet with Dems MORE (R-Texas) offered amendments to improve their legislation.

Arizona Sens. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Senate panel passes defense policy bill | House panel presses on with markup | Trump officials say WH statement prevented Syria chemical attack | NATO pledges to raise spending Senate panel passes 0B defense policy bill GOP infighting erupts over healthcare bill MORE and Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeOPINION: ObamaCare by another name is still ObamaCare Senate should seek to retain its 'blue slip' tradition for judicial nominees Progressives target Heller and Flake on Senate GOP bill 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 SessionsOvernight Regulation: Trump pick would swing labor board to GOP | House panel advances bill to slow ozone regs | Funding bill puts restrictions on financial regulators Overnight Tech: Trump targets Amazon | DHS opts for tougher screening instead of laptop ban | Dem wants FBI to probe net neutrality comments | Google fine shocks tech DOJ hosts Pride party honoring transgender student from bathroom case 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 GrahamGOP senators want surveillance requests from FBI Russia probe Overnight Cybersecurity: New ransomware attack spreads globally | US pharma giant hit | House intel panel interviews Podesta | US, Kenya deepen cyber partnership Graham gets frustrated in public ‘unmasking’ debate 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 SchumerTougher Russia sanctions bill facing another setback Trump claims GOP has a 'big surprise' on healthcare Senate Dems step up protests ahead of ObamaCare repeal vote MORE (N.Y.), Bob MenendezRobert MenendezBipartisan group, Netflix actress back bill for American Latino Museum The Mideast-focused Senate letter we need to see Taiwan deserves to participate in United Nations MORE (N.J.), Dick DurbinDick DurbinGraham gets frustrated in public ‘unmasking’ debate Senate Dems set principles for potential budget negotiation Dem senator: GOP's healthcare approach will 'devastate Medicaid' MORE (Ill.) and Michael BennetMichael BennetDems step up attacks on GOP ObamaCare bill Trump welcomes Gorsuch on first Supreme Court visit Why higher education is in need of regulatory relief 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 ClintonJeff Bridges: ‘I’m rooting’ for Trump as a human being Leading Pelosi critic Moulton once penned effusive praise for her: report Dems land top recruit for Ros-Lehtinen's Florida district 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.