Gang of Eight vows to stay united, defeat immigration reform poison pills

Members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight say they are open to amending the 844-page immigration reform bill they unveiled this week but will band together to defeat poison-pill amendments.

“We expect and welcome suggested improvements to the bill by our colleagues,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a press conference Thursday. “We will oppose only those amendments that are intended to prevent a comprehensive solution from passing.”

Business groups want to increase the number of visas for immigrant workers while labor unions want to speed up the path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Democratic and Republican members of the gang, though, pledged unity to fend off attacks on the bill from the right and the left.

A bipartisan coalition of senators made a similar pledge in 2007, the last time the Senate debated comprehensive immigration reform.

The agreement broke down, however, as some members of the group voted for amendments that others called poison pills. Members also squabbled over the characterization of amendments and some Democrats complained that then-Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was often too quick to label a proposed change a poison pill to protect his work from revisions.

Members of the gang described a difficult negotiation process that at several points appeared on the verge of failure.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said negotiations over a new class of visas for low-skilled immigrant workers, a hot point of contention between business and labor groups, was especially intense.

The group held 24 meetings before finalizing legislation, which it introduced this week. The other members are Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Schumer said he expects additional obstacles.

“Today is just the beginning of our voyage. It will be long and arduous. There will be perils we can’t even anticipate but we start off with optimism because this bipartisan agreement gives us a sturdy ship to ride out the stormy seas ahead,” he said.

Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, who attended the press event, said the contentious issue of the future flow of immigrant labor poses the biggest threat to the bill. He noted it scuttled the Senate immigration bill six years ago.

Schumer said the Judiciary Committee will mark up the legislation beginning the first week of May and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to bring it to the Senate floor no later than June.

The Judiciary panel will hold hearings on the bill Friday and Monday.