Senate panel vote signals Republican support for immigration reform

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday adopted a substitute amendment to immigration reform legislation with a strong bipartisan margin, signaling which Republicans are most likely to support the bill.

Only four Republicans voted against the substitute amendment, which expands the legislation to 867 pages and increases funding for implementation of reform by $900 billion. It passed by a margin of 14-4.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the panel, Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) voted against the substitute, which sponsors characterized as a bundle of technical fixes.

Four Republicans on the panel voted for it: Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Cornyn (Texas) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.). Flake and Graham are members of the Gang of Eight, which crafted the bill.

Hatch has been eyed as a possible Republican swing vote, and his vote Thursday showed he is more sympathetic to the legislation than some of his GOP colleagues.

Cornyn’s vote was a surprising split with Cruz. Cornyn has voted in close alignment with the freshman senator this year, a pattern that political strategists attribute to the possibility that Cornyn could face a primary challenge when he runs for reelection in 2014.

About an hour later, in another sign of bipartisan support for the underlying measure, the panel rejected a Republican proposal that would have required that the border be under effective control for six months before the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are given legal status.

Graham and Flake voted with Democrats to defeat the proposal in a 12-6 vote.

Grassley, who offered the amendment, said the bill as drafted does not require border security before granting provisional legal status to illegal immigrants. He said he offered the amendment to ensure the nation does not grant a blanket amnesty without securing the southern border, a mistake he says the nation made in 1986.

“I think we’re entitled to make sure because we were so certain in 1986, and we screwed up,” he said.

One of the biggest changes in the substitute amendment was that it would increase the funding allocated to implement the legislation from $100 million to $1 billion.

“Our watchword here is to have this bill pay for itself. In other words, we do not want it to incur any costs to the taxpayer, the Treasury or anybody else. That will be a balance. It will be the costs of administering the E-Verify program and the exit-entry visa program, the costs of strengthening the border and the costs of just administering the new immigrants who will be coming here,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Gang of Eight and a sponsor of the substitute amendment.

Schumer said he was heartened by the early show of Republican support.

“I think they know it’s a good proposal,” he said in an afternoon press conference. “I was very heartened by kind words by John Cornyn and even Ted Cruz on different parts of the proposal.

“There wasn’t too much animus or name-calling or anything else,” he added.

Grassley’s amendment would have applied border security strategies to the northern as well as the southern border.

Republicans criticized the bill for not requiring operational border security before putting illegal immigrants on a pathway to citizenship.

“I just want to make clear that there is no border security trigger currently in the bill and what Sen. Grassley’s proposal would [do is] impose an effective trigger to do what we all know needs to be done, and we want done, which is provide operational control of the border,” Cornyn said.

Schumer said creating fully operational control of the entire southern border is virtually impossible, but security can be dramatically increased.

“Does that mean if one radar is broken on one part of the border, that you can’t begin legalizing the people who are here?” said Schumer.

“Operational control deals with having a person in each place,” said Schumer. “If you want to have the whole federal budget [spent on] border patrol, you could probably have 100-percent control.”

Schumer said aerial drones could substantially increase border security by enabling law enforcement to pick up illegal immigrants after they’ve traveled as many as 50 miles into the United States.

Earlier in the hearing, the panel approved six Republican-sponsored amendments to improve border security.

The committee also approved on a bipartisan voice vote an amendment sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Cornyn to block the creation of a land-border crossing fee.

The Judiciary panel has devoted Thursday, the first day of its mark up to the section of the bill, Title I, devoted to border security.

Advocates on both sides of the debate weighed in on the controversial bill.

The National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, an organization representing local law enforcement officers, criticized the border-security provisions in the bill.

The group reported that illegal border crossings have soared in anticipation of Congress passing immigration reform.

“Thousands of unaccompanied children, runaways, and families now attempt to illegally enter the United States in hopes of receiving legalization,” it wrote in a letter dated Thursday. “This trend will surely continue after enactment as S. 744 provides no commitment of stronger border enforcement for at least five to ten years following the initial legalization phase.”

A group of conservative leaders, including Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax reform, issued a statement Wednesday in support of the legislation.

This story was posted at 11:28 a.m. and last updated at 2:05 p.m.