Pressure builds on Senate group to unveil immigration reform specifics

A bipartisan Senate group working on immigration reform plans to set a timeline for unveiling legislation, as it feels subtle pressure from the chairman of the Judiciary Committee to act.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a lead negotiator of the ad hoc group on immigration reform, says he and his colleagues realize the clock is ticking. They hope to soon have a timeline for unveiling legislation.

“We know time is of the essence. Sometime in the next few weeks we will have a definite timeline. We got a couple of very big issues to resolve,” McCain told The Hill.

A Democratic source familiar with the talks said the group may unveil the bill itself before the end of the month.

Either way, time is running short. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), McCain’s negotiating partner, said he expected to have a bipartisan bill sometime in March. There are only three weeks left until Congress leaves for a two-week Easter recess on March 22.

Lawmakers and groups advocating for reform say McCain, Schumer and their partners, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), need to show substantial progress before the end of the month.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has turned over authorship of immigration reform to the group but his patience is limited. He is eager to move shortly after the committee marks up a series of gun-violence bills this month.

Leahy put pressure on Schumer and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to speed up their talks over expanding background checks for private gun sales when he scheduled a legislative markup this past week. The chairman delayed the session to give Schumer more time but the message was clear: time is in short supply.

The same is true of immigration reform.

“I think April is probably the markup month they’re looking at and then to the floor in either May or June,” said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.

Kelley said Leahy wants to see real progress from Schumer, McCain and Rubio before the recess.

“Leahy’s really committed to getting this done and he’s going to watch it carefully and he’s going to want to keep measuring progress. You may not get the final grade but you’ll get an interim report before the recess. I would expect they’re going to want to see real progress,” she said.

“I don’t think his patience will be endless,” a Democratic aide said of Leahy.

One of the biggest challenges in the immigration negotiations is how to handle future flows of immigrant workers. Controversy over a guest-worker program derailed comprehensive reform when the Senate last debated it in 2007.

“I think the problem for immigration reform will be about future flow, access to future labor,” said Graham. “The reason you have 11 million illegal workers is that lot of employers can’t find labor, so we got to address that.”

Republicans have forgiven President Obama for a draft White House immigration proposal that leaked to the media last month. Republican lawmakers said at the time the draft could undermine Senate talks.

But the touchy subject did not even come up for discussion at a recent meeting between Obama, McCain and Graham.

“The discussion we had was on a higher level,” McCain said.

“No apologies were needed,” Graham said of the president. “He was very candid and sincere about wanting to lend the weight of his office to the cause. That was very encouraging to me. The president was really in a problem-solving mode.”

Some Republicans have questioned whether Obama is pushing reform legislation in good faith.

“I don’t believe President Obama wants an immigration bill to pass, instead I think he wants a political issue,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said last month. “His objective is to push so much on the table that he forces Republicans walk away from the table because then he wants to use that issue in 2014 and 2016 as a divisive wedge issue.”