Pro-immigrant groups balk at Gang of Eight's goal of winning 70 votes

Pro-immigrant advocates are pushing back against the Gang of Eight’s strategy to win 70 votes or more for comprehensive immigration reform, fearing it would require too many concessions to Republicans.

Liberal advocates of comprehensive immigration reform argue the bill only needs 60 votes to clear the Senate and that additional concessions to pad the vote total are not necessary.

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Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other members of the gang are pushing for 70 votes to give it maximum political momentum out of the upper chamber.

But the cost of winning 15 to 17 Republican votes could prove steep. Pro-immigrant advocates are leery of proposed changes to strengthen enforcement provisions, which could lengthen the already arduous path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Some advocates of comprehensive immigration reform prefer the strategy of passing the strongest possible Senate bill — from their point of view — to maximize negotiating leverage with the House in conference talks expected later this year.

They believe the actions of the next several weeks will largely determine the final outcome of the bill.

The behind-the-scenes debate boils down to whether it’s better to make concessions now to pick up a larger group of Senate Republicans, or to keep the Senate legislation as pristine as possible so it emerges from negotiations with the House still palatable to the vast majority of Democrats.

“Some members of the Gang of 8 seem willing to trade a bit too much in order to ratchet up a high vote count,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, in a statement. “We would remind them that it’s far better to pass a good bill with 60-70 votes than a hopelessly compromised bill with 70-80 votes. The Senate bill is already a carefully balanced compromise between the right and the left.”

America’s Voice was heavily involved in past efforts to pass immigration reform and is a key player in this year’s pro-immigration reform coalition.

Sharry said in a telephone interview he is most concerned about Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight, who has pressed for changes to the bill since the group unveiled the legislation in April.

The National Review Online reported Thursday that Rubio is contemplating changes that would lay out more definitively a plan for border enforcement, instead of leaving it largely to the discretion of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Rubio touched on the idea during a May 24 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Rubio has also voiced support for a Republican amendment to implement a visa-tracking system based on biometric data before adjusting the legal status of immigrants. Pro-immigrant advocates say this could significantly delay the path to citizenship.

“It’s not only Rubio. Schumer and McCain have talked about getting more than 70 votes,” said Sharry. “And we just want to be very clear that from our point of view [what] we’re interested in is a good bill, even if it means 63 or 65 votes rather than a bad bill that can pick up more Republicans but at the expense of policy that will work when implemented.”

Schumer and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another leader of the Gang of Eight, have set a goal of 70 votes.

“Our goal is to get 70 votes. It is going to take a lot of work,” Schumer told Politico last week.

Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Schumer, downplayed 70 votes as a rigid target.

“That is not a split. That is the same thing. If we get 66, 67, 68 votes, Schumer and Sharry will both be happy,” he said.

Other immigration reform advocates say the 60-vote threshold that has become the standard for passing legislation through the Senate is ambitious enough.

“How many pieces of the legislation has the Senate been able to pass?” said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns at La Raza, a group advocating for the needs of Hispanic Americans.

“I think there’s been enough debate about the 60-vote threshold that has become the threshold for anything [passing] has so paralyzed the Senate. So in my mind, why should we impose a different standard for immigration legislation?” she asked.

"The threshold for passing the bill should be the same as any other bill," she added. "We're talking about a bill that was crafted as a result of extensive negotiation and compromise to achieve a fragile balance."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has signaled immigration reform already has enough votes to pass the Senate.

"I think we have 60 votes," Reid recently told the public affairs show, “To the Point.”

"Remember, we start out at 55 Democrats. I think the most I'll lose is two or three,” he said.

"Let's say I wind up with 52 Democrats," he continued. "I only need eight Republicans, and I already have four, so that should be pretty easy."

The 70-vote goal discussed by Schumer and McCain is not viewed as imperative throughout the Democratic leadership.

“Whatever number can get us to pass a bill, that’s the number we care about,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

“You don’t want to threaten the more than 50 votes we expect from Democrats in order to pick up an extra five to seven votes from Republicans,” Sharry said.

Counting Republicans on the Gang of Eight and Republicans who voted for comprehensive immigration reform in the past, pro-immigrant groups think the bill already has 60 votes.

"We're also sending a message to our Democratic members of the gang. We know they're going to be engaged in negotiations to try to pick up extra Republican votes. Of course they are. That's their job. We need that," he added. "But we're saying, 'Look, don't give away the store.'

"We have confidence they won't, but this is a very delicate moment because most likely the Senate bill is going to be the high-water mark," he said.

--This report was updated at 8:48 a.m.