First key fight in immigration battle is what to name bill

One of the first political issues negotiators must tackle in crafting an immigration reform bill is among the most important: what to name it.

It’s a decision that will bruise egos, create legacies and deeply affect subsequent messaging battles.

“Every time the bill is mentioned in the press, you either have a brand that's positive or a brand that doesn't mean anything or even hurts you,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice.

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The wrong name, he warned, could doom a good bill.

“If there's not a catchy name, it gets defined by others,” he said. “I'm sure there are people on the other side trying to come up with a phrase or a word.”

No one knows what the House and Senate bills now being crafted in backrooms by select groups of lawmakers will be called, but it’s possible it could be named after some of the negotiators. They include Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

The last major immigration reform bill was named after McCain and former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a fact critics on the right used against it.

“McCain at that point was the presumptive nominee for his party ... and Kennedy was the liberal lion of the Senate, so the idea of having their two names associated with one another seemed like a really good idea in the beginning,” said Sharry. “But because of the revolt on the right and divisions on the left, mainly the revolt on the right, McCain-Kennedy was said with derision on the right.”

The fact the immigration bill was known as McCain-Kennedy was arguably a headache for the Arizona Republican when he faced a tough primary battle ahead of his Senate reelection in 2010.

His office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The eight senators negotiating a bill are considering a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Conservative groups opposed to what they call an “amnesty” plan warn there will be repercussions for those who sign on to the bill, and certainly for anyone whose name graces the legislation.

Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) Communications Director Bob Dane said that would include Rubio, the one senator in the so-called group of eight who is seen as a likely presidential candidate in 2016.

“If any amnesty bill has any GOP ink on it, rank-and-file conservative voters will shut it down and, for extra credit, they are going to take any Republican who was on it to the woodshed during the mid-term elections and they'll remember Rubio during the presidential election,” Dane said in an interview with The Hill.

Rubio communications director Alex Conant told The Hill that although he hasn’t discussed the naming of the bill with his boss, the Florida senator is not as concerned with “who gets credit” for a plan, just that it reflect the principles set forth in January.

Conant noted that Rubio will “not sign on to anything that's doesn't reflect those same principles.”

“We feel confident that as long as we're sticking to our principles, conservatives are going to be continuing to support him,” he said.

Some senators, of course, might want their names on legislation that has a chance to be remembered for decades.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will hold the hearings on the package; the House also has a less visible group of lawmakers negotiating a deal.

That leads Sharry to think negotiators will seek a title for their bill that prevents it from being named after a gang of lawmakers.

“I suspect some smart wags on the inside will come up with an acronym ... ‘The Solution Act, The Once and For All Bill, The Legal Immigration Control, Reform, Economic Growth, Law and Order Bill, [or] something like that,” he said.