Gang of Eight's strategy for winning immigration floor fight: Stick together

The Gang of Eight’s strategy for passing immigration reform through the Senate next month is to stick close together through a barrage of tough amendments.

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The group plans to meet daily when their bill hits the floor in June and will encourage giving colleagues free rein to offer amendments, according to a person familiar with their discussions.

“Everyone is going to have to take tough votes,” said a member of the group who attended a strategy session Thursday just off the Senate floor.

Members of the group expect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring the immigration bill to the floor the week of June 10 after consideration of the Farm Bill.

The purpose of the daily meetings will be to give members of the gang a chance to discuss the amendments coming to the floor that day and how they will vote.

“We agreed to work together as a team, just as we did on the Judiciary Committee. We want a full and fair debate on the floor, but we’ve also agreed that the core concepts of the bill cannot be undone,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the bill’s lead Democratic sponsor and a member of the gang.

The bipartisan coalition behind the 2007 Senate immigration reform bill splintered over controversial amendments. The 2007 bill suffered a deathblow when the Senate voted 49-48 to adopt an amendment sponsored by former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to sunset a guest-worker program after five years.

The Gang of Eight wants to avoid a similar debacle this summer.

The group did not specifically discuss what vote threshold to set for amendments, but members expect it will require 60 votes to make changes to the bill.

“Any one senator can ask for 60 votes. Therefore we’re operating under the assumption that’s what will be required,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the gang.

“The good news is that the vast majority of Americans, the vast majority of Americans, the vast majority of conservative Republicans are prepared to do something about the 11 million people that are here illegally, so long as it’s not a burden on the taxpayer, and so long as we take steps to ensure this problem doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Rubio said he expects a wide range of amendments to receive votes on the floor.

“I think if you look at what they did in the Judiciary Committee — an open, extensive process — I think that’s the way we’re going to get the best bill possible,” he said

Republican senators will bring up many of the same amendments Democrats defeated during the Judiciary Committee markup this month.

Some of the tougher amendments will be ones that split the Gang of Eight on the Judiciary panel, such as an amendment proposed by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to bar immigrants granted provisional legal status from receiving earned income tax credits.

Schumer suggested Thursday that an amendment to restrict earned income tax credits for people with Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status would not necessarily be a deal breaker. His goal is to pass the bill through the Senate with 70 votes to give it maximum political momentum and put pressure on the House to act. He may have to concede ground to pick up additional Republican votes.

“I am pretty content with what we have in our bill. The most contentious issue is ObamaCare and what we have in our bill says you can join the exchanges, but you don’t get a subsidy. You have to fund that yourself or your employer has to fund it,” Schumer told reporters.

“On these other issues, obviously, there are all kinds of amendments being prepared on all of them, and we’ll have to look at each one,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), a Republican member of the gang, said the eligibility of immigrants with provisional legal status for earned income tax credits needs to be addressed on the Senate floor.

“We still need to make some changes and tighten up some of the Finance stuff, some of the benefits stuff,” he said. “For example, those under RPI status are not eligible for means-tested federal welfare benefits, but by virtue of being taxpayers they would qualify for earned income tax credits.”

Flake and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another member of the gang, voted for the Sessions amendment to restrict earned income tax credits, while Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), a Democratic gang member, voted against it.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) voted to report the immigration bill out of the Judiciary Committee, letting Schumer claim strong bipartisan support for the package. But Hatch may not vote for final passage on the floor.

Hatch wants the Gang of Eight to accept four amendments addressing issues under the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, on which he serves as the ranking Republican.

One amendment would not allow the secretary of Health and Human Services to waive federal welfare work requirements to direct federal funds to immigrants.

Another amendment requires Registered Provisional Immigrant applicants to show they have paid their back taxes and to stay current with their tax obligations once they receive provisional legal status.

A third amendment intended to “preserve the integrity of Social Security” states that unauthorized employment does not count as a period of covered employment in calculating insurance eligibility.

A fourth proposal applies a five-year ban on Registered Provisional Immigrants and temporary agricultural workers receiving subsidies under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Hatch said his committee vote “doesn’t mean I’ll vote for it on the floor.” 

“I won’t vote for it if we don’t resolve those four Finance amendments,” he said.