Schumer vs. Chamber flares up, throwing immigration roadblock

Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) rocky relationship with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has become one more obstacle to passing immigration reform this year.

Democrats say their chances of passing comprehensive immigration reform will depend on recruiting GOP support.

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But the Chamber, a crucial ally with enormous influence on the Republican side of the aisle, has panned Schumer’s draft proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.

That has left some colleagues wondering if Schumer’s prior arguments with the leading business trade association have cast a shadow over the bill.  “Schumer has bad blood with the Chamber. You know he ripped them during the last election,” said a Democratic senator.

Schumer, who then served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, blasted the chamber in October of 2008 as a “wing” of the GOP after it spent millions against Democratic candidates.

Schumer said the Chamber is “supposed to be nonpartisan, and they’ve turned themselves into a wing of the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee].”

“They’re running attack ads on issues unrelated to the issues the Chamber stands for, they’re taking partisan stands, and their ads almost dovetail with the campaign ads of the NRSC,” he told reporters a month before the election.

Many political observers remembered that spat when the Chamber criticized Schumer’s new immigration reform proposal.

“We recognize that there are many opportunities to find common ground on immigration reform; however, we are disappointed with the draft proposal today issued by Sens. [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.], Schumer and [Robert] Menendez [D-N.J.],” said Randel Johnson, a senior vice president at the Chamber.

“While the outline addresses several of the Chamber’s priorities, it appears to have serious substantive problems in several critical areas,” he said.

Two sources close to the legislative talks, however, dismissed the 2008 battle between Schumer and the Chamber as old news.

Sources said a compromise with Schumer is still possible and argued that Senate Majority Leader Reid pressured Democratic negotiators to unveil a draft proposal before business leaders could sign on. 

An aide to Reid disputed the claim that Reid leaned on Schumer to move an immigration proposal before business groups could support it.

"The intent all along was for Democratic leaders to introduce a framework — we never planned to get business, or anybody else to 'sign on'." said the aide. "Reid didn't pressure Schumer to do anything."

When he introduced a 26-page summary proposal last week, Schumer insisted it would be possible to pass immigration reform this year. He acknowledged that Republican support would be critical.

The Chamber was a key ally in the business community when the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried to move bipartisan immigration reform in the last Congress. But some Democratic allies wonder whether Schumer needs the Chamber this time.

Schumer has spearheaded behind-the-scenes talks with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Together, they have convened some eight meetings between labor unions and business groups, including the Chamber, to hash out a deal.

“Sens. Schumer and Graham led several rounds of negotiations with business and labor, and this outline contains a number of provisions agreed to by both sides,” said Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon. “In areas where negotiations were unfinished, this outline provides a basis for further discussions. We look forward to further talks.”

Some labor groups think Schumer could move ahead on immigration reform without the Chamber. These labor officials acknowledge the support of business groups is essential but question the ability of the Chamber to deliver GOP votes.

“I don’t know why the conventional wisdom is that the Chamber needs to be at the table,” said Ana Avendano, director of immigration and community action at the AFL-CIO.

“Business needs to be at the table,” Avendano said. “Whether the Chamber is the right entity — some of us question that.
“They have a track record of not producing Republicans,” she said.

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Avendano said the AFL-CIO is trying to focus on negotiating with what she called “high-road employers” that have better relationships with labor unions.

Avendano argued that the Chamber did little to recruit GOP senators to support the bill when it died in the upper chamber three years ago.

A Schumer aide said the draft proposal reflected several agreements between labor and business. One such area is a framework to deal with agricultural workers that was crafted several years ago but has since lacked a legislative vehicle to pass Congress.

The draft plan also reflects an agreement between industry and unions to give non-seasonal low-skilled American workers a chance to sue if passed over for a job that went to a foreign worker, according to the Schumer aide.

The Chamber has objected to areas of the draft proposal where business and labor negotiators have not reached an accord. In these areas, Schumer often adopted a default position favored by labor groups.

For example, Schumer has proposed that seasonal lower-skilled workers receive wages in accordance with the prevailing-wage standard set by the Davis-Bacon Act, a perennial source of conflict between employer and labor groups.

Schumer’s proposal sets higher wage minimums for high-skilled professional foreign workers who receive H-1B visas.

The Chamber has also balked at an expansion of private causes of actions workers can use to sue their employers.

Business lobbyists say the Schumer proposal has been shaped much more by labor groups than the McCain-Kennedy bill of 2007.

The Chamber source said Schumer “didn’t run that draft through us” before making it public.

The Schumer aide, however, said the Chamber received a draft along with pro-immigration reform groups, labor unions and other stakeholders on Wednesday of last week, a day before Schumer held a press conference on the proposal.

The staffer said Schumer would re-engage with the Chamber and other business groups as he continues negotiations with Republican senators to build support for immigration reform.

This story wsa updated at 3:48 p.m.