By Russell Berman and Alexander Bolton - 04/17/13 12:27 AM EDT
The Senate’s Gang of Eight released details of sweeping immigration reform legislation Tuesday as part of a staggered rollout that was interrupted by the Boston terrorist attack.
President Obama hailed the proposal — which would give provisional legal status to an estimated 11 million people in the country illegally and put them on a pathway to citizenship — as “largely consistent” with his own vision for an overhaul of the country’s immigration system.
The senators planned to formally introduce the measure on Tuesday evening, with a rescheduled public event to follow as early as Wednesday that would include prominent supporters from across the political spectrum.
Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), two leaders of the Senate group, went to the White House to brief the president on the legislation.
“This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me,” Obama said in a statement following the meeting. “But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive reform.”
“I urge the Senate to quickly move this bill forward and, as I told Senators Schumer and McCain, I stand willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality as soon as possible,” he added.
The legislation, which by one estimate will run more than 1,500 pages, has been eagerly awaited for months, and the lower-profile rollout led to a muted initial response from critics and supporters alike.
“I’m for immigration reform, but we have 1,600 pages,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “We’re going to read the details and try to make it acceptable to conservatives.”
In brief comments, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said of the bill: “Hopefully it’ll provide a bipartisan way forward on a very important issue to the country.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight, said Republican senators were “receptive” to the proposal when he and other GOP members of the group held a briefing Monday.
“I wouldn’t say I heard big concerns from my colleagues,” Rubio said. “This is the first time some of them are listening to this in-depth.”
The legislative summary provided to reporters offered a detailed look at the complexities of a measure that would overhaul the nation’s immigration system for the first time in decades.
The legislation would put illegal immigrants on a pathway to citizenship only after several criteria for securing the U.S.-Mexico border are met.
It sets goals of persistent surveillance in high-risk areas — where more than 30,000 individuals are apprehended trying to enter the country illegally per year — along the southern border and a 90 percent success rate for stopping crossings in those sectors.
It would provide funding for 3,500 additional customs agents nationwide and authorize the deployment of the National Guard to the border to construct fencing and augment surveillance systems.
Illegal immigrants would not receive provisional legal status until the secretary of Homeland Security submits to Congress a “notice of commencement” testifying to the completion of the bill’s border-security goals.
And before immigrants with provisional status could achieve permanent lawful status, the secretary, in consultation with the comptroller general of the U.S., would have to certify a number of border-security provisions were met.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has already scheduled hearings on the legislation for Friday and Monday, a move that drew the ire of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a critic of the push for comprehensive immigration reform.
Sessions accused Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) of trying to rush the legislation to the Senate floor with “minimum public scrutiny.”
“Chairman Leahy’s decision to now hold two hearings in two days — one on Friday, one on Monday — is only further proof of the majority’s desire to rush this bill,” Sessions said in an email to The Hill.
Some conservatives have sounded alarms about the cost of the legislation, which has yet to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office.
McCain told reporters the bill would be deficit-neutral. “We intend to pay for it with fees and not add a burden on the taxpayer,” he said.
Rubio preemptively urged conservatives to judge the cost of implementation and new bureaucracy against the cost of the system, and said the legislation should undergo “dynamic scoring” to account for more potential economic benefits.
“I would compare the bill to the status quo,” he said. “How much are we spending now? How much is what we have now costing? Because I bet you it’s very significant.”
Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a conservative member of a bipartisan group negotiating immigration legislation in the House, voiced concern about the bill’s guest-worker program provisions, which were based on a deal between business and labor groups.
The initial cap of 20,000 workers, he said, “might as well be zero.”
Rubio acknowledged conservative concerns with the program and said business groups “want a higher number.” But he defended the Senate bill.
“It is vastly better than what we have now. By far,” he said.
Rubio and McCain downplayed concerns that the Boston bombing would hinder the immigration reform effort, either by interrupting the rollout or by rekindling security fears.
“The most important thing is not the public event,” Rubio said. “The most important thing is that the details of the bill have been made available, and we can get input from people how to make it better.”
In reference to the Boston attack, Rubio cautioned against “using language that links these two things in any way.”
“We know very little about Boston other than it was obviously an act of terror,” Rubio said.
McCain said that, if anything, the terrorist attack should boost arguments for passing a bill that improves border security.
“As a matter of fact, our provisions are to secure the border more. I think it’s an argument for quick passage of it,” McCain said.
— Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.