Senate Democrats work to woo Cornyn, Hatch on immigration reform

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are focused on wooing two conservative Republican senators they consider crucial to expanding support for immigration reform beyond the Gang of Eight and maximizing pressure on the House. 

Some Democrats believe they have a shot of securing the support of Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, who offered encouraging words early on in the Judiciary panel’s markup of the legislation.

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But Democrats say they’ll first need to win backing from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whom they consider key to getting Cornyn, as well as other Republicans outside the Gang of Eight, on board.

“Hatch is a key figure. If we can get Hatch, then Cornyn is gettable. If we can’t get Hatch, we can’t get Cornyn,” said a senior Democratic aide.

The efforts to win over the two Republicans are vital to the Senate Democrats’ broader goal of passing immigration reform with as many votes as possible. 

That would give political cover to centrist Democrats facing tough reelections next year, and bolster momentum for passing comprehensive reform in the lower chamber.

Winning over Hatch will depend on getting a deal on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers, a top priority for the Utah Republican and for the high-tech industry.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, has diligently wooed Hatch, requesting more time from Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to work out a deal on the visas. 

Schumer also offered one of Hatch’s amendments on Monday when Hatch missed the session. 

Schumer is even willing to risk the wrath of organized labor by dealing with Hatch. The AFL-CIO has slammed Hatch’s amendments on H-1B visas.

A second senior Democratic aide said Cornyn is a possible “yes” vote on final passage. 

But the Democratic aide warned Cornyn’s support would hinge on whether his home-state colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), gives him leeway to do so.

“Cruz would have to give him political cover. He would have to say something like ‘I’m personally opposed to the bill but I recognize the contributions it makes to fixing the immigration system,’ ” the aide said.

Schumer said he was “very heartened” by the “kind words” Cornyn and Cruz offered on different parts of the immigration bill during the Judiciary Committee’s first day of markup.

“I think they know it’s a good proposal,” he told reporters. 

Democratic leaders want to avoid the scenario that earlier this year doomed the Manchin-Toomey proposal to expand background checks for gun sales. 

Democrats were initially optimistic that the support of Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), a conservative Republican with an A rating from the National Rifle Association, would seal a victory on gun control legislation. But Toomey only managed to bring along Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). 

Democrats hope Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a favorite among conservative voters and a member of the Gang of Eight, will embolden a large number of Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform. But they are leery of the prospect that the bill might not draw much support beyond the Gang of Eight and pass the Senate narrowly with diminished political momentum.

Vulnerable Democrats would like to see 70 votes for immigration reform to feel comfortable backing it.

Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), one of the most endangered Democrats, told The Wall Street Journal he is uncommitted and would like to see a final vote “north of 70 votes.”

This makes Cornyn, and especially Hatch, important to building a favorable impression among Republicans before the bill hits the Senate floor next month.

“Hatch, Hatch, Hatch. I think he’s put it out there quite clearly that he’s in play if he likes which amendments of his pass,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America’s Voice, an advocacy group that supports the bill.

Tramonte, however, said Cornyn needs to validate his encouraging talk about immigration reform with action.

“For years he’s claimed to be an immigration reformer. He drafted a bill, and then when it came time to vote, he voted ‘no,’ ” Tramonte said. “I’d love to be pleasantly surprised but with him, it’s not just talking the talk but walking the walk.”

One senior Democratic aide said he would be “shocked” if Cornyn voted for the bill.

Cornyn has a long record of calling for immigration reform but voting against Senate proposals.

In a November interview with The Washington Post, he noted that one-third of Texas’s population is Hispanic, and has called it a “demographic necessity” for Republicans to expand their appeal among the fast-growing electoral bloc.  

In April of last year, he told Univision that “people are much more aware that we cannot maintain our current broken immigration system.”

“As my colleague and friend Marco Rubio says, Republicans must be the party of ... legal immigration. How do we make it easier for people to migrate, maintain families together and use the people that we need so that our economy can continue to grow,” he said.

But in 2010, Cornyn voted against ending a filibuster of the DREAM Act, which would have given legal status to illegal immigrants who were brought to the country at a young age.

Cornyn also voted against comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2007.

Even so, he remains a tempting target given his influence within the Senate Republican Caucus and his expertise on immigration issues from representing a border state. 

Cornyn is the Senate Republican whip and chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the past two election cycles.