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 CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsOvernight Finance: House sends Dodd-Frank rollbacks to Trump | What's in the bill | Trump says there is 'no deal' to help ZTE | Panel approves bill to toughen foreign investment reviews Congress, Trump eye new agency to invest in projects overseas On World Press Freedom Day, elected officials must commit to keeping press freedom nonpartisan MORE (D-Del.) to halt Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano from deporting illegal immigrants to unsafe areas.

Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — GOP centrists in striking distance of immigration vote Schumer: Trump should take Kim Jong Un off 'trip coin' Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' MORE (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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTrump has exposed Democratic hypocrisy on prison reform House easily passes prison reform bill backed by Trump This week: House GOP regroups after farm bill failure MORE (D-Ill.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse GOP sets three FBI interviews in Clinton probe Trump on collision course with Congress on ZTE The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — GOP centrists in striking distance of immigration vote MORE (R-S.C.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeOvernight Energy: Reporters barred from Day 2 of EPA summit | Dems blame Trump for gas price increases | Massachusetts to get new offshore wind farm Jeff Flake: Trump has 'debased' the presidency Senate Democrats look for traction on gas prices MORE (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 HatchOrrin Grant HatchOvernight Finance: Trump signs Dodd-Frank rollback | Snubs key Dems at ceremony | Senate confirms banking regulator | Lawmakers lash out on Trump auto tariffs Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Abortion rights group plans M campaign to flip the House Senate GOP sounds alarm over Trump's floated auto tariffs MORE (R-Utah) and John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: Experts worry North Korea will retaliate with hacks over summit | FBI works to disrupt Russian botnet | Trump officials look to quell anger over ZTE | Obama makes case for tighter regs on tech Senate GOP sounds alarm over Trump's floated auto tariffs Administration works to assuage critics over ZTE deal MORE (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 LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyMcConnell sets 'minibus' strategy for 2019 spending Dem senator mocks Pruitt over alleged security threats: 'Nobody even knows who you are' Pruitt tells senators: ‘I share your concerns about some of these decisions’ MORE (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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyFormer US attorneys urge support for Trump nominee Dem leaders request bipartisan meeting on Russia probe Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — House passes 'right to try' drug bill | Trump moves to restrict abortion referrals MORE (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 RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Experts worry North Korea will retaliate with hacks over summit | FBI works to disrupt Russian botnet | Trump officials look to quell anger over ZTE | Obama makes case for tighter regs on tech Putting pressure on Trump, House passes bill barring government from doing business with ZTE The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Tensions mount for House Republicans MORE’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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPro-Trump super PAC raises .5 million in 6 weeks Trump has exposed Democratic hypocrisy on prison reform Tapper lists 'conspiracy theories' Trump has shared MORE (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 LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTrump has exposed Democratic hypocrisy on prison reform Denial of services to same-sex couples can harm their health GOP Senate primary heats up in Montana MORE (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 SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDirector of federal prisons resigns after clashes with Kushner, Sessions: report Black Caucus raises concerns over Amazon facial recognition software Immigrant women, children abused by gangs need our protection MORE (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.