Immigration bill gains momentum

The Senate’s Gang of Eight fended off a slew of poison-pill amendments aimed at the immigration reform bill, building momentum for the legislation that has sparked strong opposition from conservatives.

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Members of the gang touted the passage of a group of GOP-sponsored amendments they said had strengthened the bill and would help address the concerns of conservatives.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted down GOP-sponsored amendments to delay putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship and to dramatically increase the number of Border Patrol agents and surveillance vehicles.

The bill’s sponsors also dodged an effort from the left by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) to halt Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano from deporting illegal immigrants to unsafe areas.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the bill’s lead sponsor, argued that Coons’s proposal was so broad that it could stop almost all deportations to Mexico, where more than 12,000 people died in drug-related violence last year.

The members of the Gang of Eight on the Judiciary panel, Schumer and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), hung together to knock down amendments that could undermine bipartisan support for the bill.

They also picked up support at times from two other Republicans on the panel, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Schumer said he was encouraged by support from Republicans during the hearing and predicted it would grow.

“On occasional votes, we went beyond just the members of the Gang of Eight who voted for certain things,” Schumer told reporters. “In the overall tone, I get the sense that even those on the other side of the aisle would like to be able to support something, many of them beyond just Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham.”

Cornyn and Hatch joined Flake and Graham in voting for a substitute amendment that made a variety of technical fixes to the comprehensive bill, lengthening it to 867 pages.

The Thursday markup of the bill was devoted to border security issues addressed in Title I.

Democrats and Flake and Graham defeated amendments requiring fully operational border control and a tripling of border patrol agents before granting legal status to 11 million illegal immigrants.

Instead, the committee passed an amendment sponsored by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Cornyn to give the Department of Homeland Security more flexibility to spend $1.5 billion for fence building along the southern border.

Democrats touted the panel’s acceptance of eight GOP-sponsored amendments to improve border security and congressional oversight.

One amendment sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) would give the Senate and House Judiciary panels access to regular reports on border security. Another Grassley amendment would apply border-security plan goals to all sectors of the southern border, not just “high-risk” sectors with at least 30,000 apprehensions.

A Flake-sponsored amendment would put three private land representatives on a 29-member Department of Homeland Security Oversight Task Force.

It will allow them to claim they have made the border security provisions of the bill stronger in response to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) caveat that the bill could not pass the House in its current form.

“These are good-faith improvements to the bill that make our proposal stronger. We plan to keep accepting as many amendments as possible from the other side of the aisle,” Schumer said.

In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal last week, Rubio said the bill had “shortcomings” and “unintended consequences” that need to be addressed.

Rubio, a member of the Gang of Eight, praised the committee’s work.

“The immigration legislation was improved in some areas today. The bill will now do more to secure our borders and enforce our laws than when the day began,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go, but I am encouraged that we are witnessing a transparent and deliberate process to accept input to improve this legislation.”

But Democrats — joined by Flake and Graham — stayed united to defeat amendments that would have taken much larger steps to secure the border. A proposal by Grassley to require six months of effective control of the borders before granting provisional legal status to 11 million illegal immigrants was soundly defeated, 6-11.

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to triple the number of border patrol agents to 60,000 and quadruple surveillance equipment on the southern border also failed by a vote of 5-13.

Flake said Cruz’s proposal would cost between $30 billion and $40 billion. It could have delayed the path to citizenship by as long as 10 years, according to the Gang of Eight.

Cruz criticized the bill for containing subjective metrics for border security and said the Department of Homeland Security has its mind made up in advance that the border security will be adequate to give permanent legal status to millions of immigrants.

“If Las Vegas oddsmakers were laying odds of the probability of the Department of Homeland Security concluding at whatever time it came into effect that the border would be secure, under this current bill, the Las Vegas odds would be greater than 10,000 to 1,” Cruz said Thursday during the committee markup.

“It is a virtual certainty because the bill does not have meaningful metrics that actually have bite. It doesn’t have consequence,” Cruz said.

A Cornyn-sponsored amendment to increase customs and border protection agents by 6,500 and to require the secretary of Homeland Security to certify operational control of the southern border for at least a year before granting permanent legal status to immigrants failed by a vote of 6-12.

Democrats and Republican members of the Gang of Eight also defeated an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) giving Congress authority to vote on a future certification of border security by the secretary of Homeland Security. It lost on a vote of 6-12.

The panel struck down an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) requiring completion of a 700-mile double-layered fence along the southern border before granting legal status to immigrants in the country illegally.

Congress passed a law requiring construction of the fence in 2006, but the following year it amended it to give Homeland Security more discretion over its construction. So far, authorities have built only 36 miles of doubled-layered fencing.

This story was first published at 7:14 p.m. on Thursday.

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