Rubio working with Cornyn to ease GOP concerns over Senate immigration bill

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is working with Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) to strengthen the border security provisions in comprehensive immigration reform legislation scheduled for the Senate floor next week.

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Cornyn plans to offer a package of changes to the bill to ease the concerns he and other Republicans have about language to stop future flows of illegal immigration.

“There’s widespread skepticism in the conference,” said a Republican senator who attended a Wednesday meeting where lawmakers discussed immigration reform and Cornyn’s proposed changes.

Rubio has warned the Gang of Eight’s bill likely cannot pass the Senate unless it undergoes revisions to strengthen its enforcement provisions. Rubio is a member of the group. 

After the Wednesday meeting with House conservatives, Rubio reiterated that the border security provisions in the Senate bill must be strengthened. He defended his stance against criticism from liberal immigration reform advocates, who are worried he will drag the bill too far to the right.

"One of the reasons why I was asked to even join this effort was to help bring Republicans on board, and that’s what I’m trying to do," Rubio told reporters. "What’s stymieing efforts in the Senate is not my comments. What’s stymieing efforts in the Senate is that we don’t have the votes to pass it because too many members on both sides of the aisle do not believe it goes far enough on border security. They do not trust that the Department of Homeland Security will secure the border and prevent another wave of illegal immigration."

The push to boost the border security provisions, Rubio said, is "a very reasonable position, a very reasonable request and a very doable one."

He argued that Republicans were not the only critics of the Senate bill. "There are five or six Democrats that have publicly said already that they are going to struggle to be able to support this effort if there isn’t improvement in the border security," Rubio said.

Rubio has met with Cornyn to discuss changes and their staffs have been in contact.

“This is a Cornyn amendment, and Rubio’s office has offered support for it,” said an aide to Cornyn.

Cornyn outlined his proposal in an op-ed published Wednesday in The Dallas Morning News.

It would require the Department of Homeland Security to achieve “full situational awareness of the entire U.S.-Mexico border and complete operational control over every single border sector.”

He has dubbed it RESULTS, an acronym for Requiring Enforcement Security (and safety while) Upgrading Lawful Trade (and travel) Simultaneously.

“To mitigate the problem of visa overstays, the RESULTS amendment would strengthen biometric requirements rather than weaken them,” Cornyn wrote. “It would also prevent violent criminals from acquiring legal status, and it would give law enforcement access to critical national security and public safety information.”

Cornyn’s amendment would also stiffen penalties for human smuggling.

Cornyn discussed it with Republican colleagues at a meeting Wednesday.

A GOP aide said, “It was well received by fellow members."

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two other members of the Gang of Eight, said after the meeting they are willing to work with Cornyn to accommodate his concerns.

“Some of those issues, I think we’re certainly willing to negotiate,” said McCain.

Graham said “some of it has promise,” but he would need to review the details of the amendment.

Rubio on Tuesday threatened to vote against the bill he helped negotiate unless the Senate accepted amendments to strengthen the enforcement language.

Rubio said in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt Tuesday that his colleagues need to “strengthen the border security parts of this bill."

He said he would stop supporting the legislation if amendments intended to bolster border security failed.

“Well, I think if those amendments don’t pass, then I think we’ve got a bill that isn’t going to become law, and I think we’re wasting our time. So the answer is no,” he said.

Republican senators held back from endorsing the broader bill after emerging from Wednesday’s meeting.

“It’s still a work in progress. I’m going to have several amendments,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

“It has a lot of room for improvement,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he wants to support immigration reform but doubts it can pass the Senate in its current form.

“I don’t personally think it will pass right now. It definitely can’t pass the House,” said Johnson. “We’ve got to fix this problem. This isn’t good for anybody.”

Johnson said the status of millions of illegal immigrants living in the nation is “inhumane.”

But he said changes must be made to the bill reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“There’s no way I can support, and I don’t think people will support this bill, if we don’t have a full package of a border security system that people believe can work,” said Johnson.

He said the bill must have a strong employment verification program and should not give federal benefits to people who are not citizens.

“Trust me, I want to see an immigration bill pass,” he said.

Johnson said Cornyn’s amendment would improve the bill.

“Can you really trust the agencies; can you trust this administration; can you trust any administration; can you trust the federal government to actually enforce what’s in the bill?” he said.

--Russell Berman contributed.