Cornyn emerges as key to 70-vote threshold for immigration reform

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is the big prize in the quest for more than 70 votes for immigration reform, but the Gang of Eight is split over whether he’s worth wooing. Watch the video here

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Cornyn told Republican colleagues at a meeting Wednesday that he would consider making changes to his amendment to bolster the border-security provisions of the Senate bill.

His willingness to negotiate left some Republicans convinced after the meeting that he would strike a deal with the Gang of Eight and vote for final passage. His support would help the legislation pass overwhelmingly.

Republican members on the Gang of Eight think he is a gettable vote, even though they acknowledge some of their Democratic colleagues are skeptical. Democrats strongly doubt Cornyn will vote "yes," given his past record of opposing immigration reform plans.

“What I’m hoping is that we can negotiate with Sen. Cornyn to the point where we can get an agreement. We continue to talk,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leader of the gang.

Cornyn said he’s willing to modify proposal but will not concede on what he calls its "fundamental substance."

“There are certain elements that are non-negotiable, specifically the mechanism by which we would guarantee the security measures in the bill would actually be implemented,” he said.

The bill’s authors are also negotiating with Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), but neither of those lawmakers have the same authority as Cornyn on border security.

A Republican senator who is wavering over whether to support the bill said Cornyn’s vote would bring along a large group of colleagues because Cornyn is the Republican whip and represents a border state.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested earlier in the week that his vote and the support of other Republicans could be contingent on the fate of Cornyn’s proposals.

“Sen. Cornyn, I think, has got, in my view, the key amendment to put us in a position where we can actually look at the American people with a straight face and say we are going to secure the border,” McConnell told reporters earlier this week. “That's going to be a very, very important amendment.”

The legislation needs only 60 votes to pass the Senate. It appeared to have that many Thursday after Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), a conservative Democrat said he was inclined to vote for the bill, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted to table an amendment sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), which Democrats characterized as a “poison pill.”

The bill’s authors want it to pass with at least 70 votes because that would give House Republicans political cover to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Democrats on the Gang of Eight say Cornyn is demanding changes that would delay the path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants for too long.

“If Cornyn was willing to vote for it, the bill would be so watered down that any Republican would vote for it. That’s not an outcome we’re interested in,” said a Democratic aide to a member of the gang.

Republicans argue that Cornyn’s RESULTS amendment to secure the border is not radically different from language already in the bill. Both Cornyn’s proposal and the broader bill call for 100-percent monitoring and a 90-percent apprehension rate of illegal entrants along the Southern border. The crucial difference is that Cornyn’s amendment would require these goals be met before an estimated 11 million immigrants receive permanent legal status in 10 years.

While Democrats say publicly they are confident those border-security benchmarks will be met, they are not so confident as to make them the trigger for granting permanent legal status to millions of people. Cornyn’s amendment would also require using biometric data at air and sea ports at which U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel are deployed.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the lead Democratic sponsor of the immigration bill, spoke out against Cornyn’s amendment on the Senate floor.

Schumer argued that Cornyn’s goals for border security are not specific enough.

“We certainly can improve the border, but we cannot improve the border and put in place triggers that are not specific and achievable,” Schumer said. “You can measure whether there are 20 drones at the border. Your can measure whether we have X miles of fence. But if you say then that [effectiveness] has to be at this certain rate every year, you’re taking away the path to citizenship.”

Republicans interpreted Schumer’s comments more as an effort to gain leverage in private talks than an outright dismissal of Cornyn’s proposal.

“I think they were trying to discourage my amendment, but this is not about me, it’s about getting a workable solution and not just making promises that won’t be kept,” Cornyn said. “That’s important to the ultimate success of any immigration reform legislation and the number of people who are likely to support it.”

Cornyn said he has spoken to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a pivotal member of the Gang of Eight, but is not working with him on an alternative amendment to strengthen border security.

Rubio is in charge of selling immigration reform to conservatives, but many of them have grown skeptical of his assurances on border security because of his close affiliation with Schumer over the last several months.

“As those following the Schumer-Rubio medicine show have heard, amnesty for the illegal population would require only that Janet Napolitano’s Department of Homeland Security submit a plan to control the border,” Mark Krikorian, a conservative critic of the legislation, wrote on National Review Online earlier this month.