Gay-rights issue may kill Gang of Eight’s immigration reform bill

A proposal to expand gay rights is threatening to splinter a fragile, bipartisan agreement on immigration reform and kill a pillar of President Obama’s second-term agenda.

The Senate Gang of Eight, which crafted the immigration legislation, pledged to fight off “poison pill” amendments that would derail the bill. But one controversial proposal has already divided the group. 

An amendment sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDemocrats criticize FBI's handling of tip line in Kavanaugh investigation Lawmakers spend more on personal security in wake of insurrection Senate unanimously passes bill to strengthen crime victims fund MORE (D-Vt.) would allow U.S. citizens in long-term same-sex relationships to sponsor foreign partners for green cards. 

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It is potentially the most troublesome amendment of the more than 300 proposed changes that have been filed by members of the Judiciary panel. 

Republican members of the Gang of Eight have stated bluntly to their Democratic partners that this will sink the bill if adopted during the committee’s deliberations. 

The markup begins on Thursday, which is the one-year anniversary of Obama’s decision to embrace same-sex marriage.

“If that’s in the bill, that will kill the bill,” said Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.), a member of the gang. “This bill has got to get broad support to have a chance in the House, and with that provision it will not have broad support. A lot of the coalitions that are behind it will go away, and so I think that’s pretty much understood.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinNew York gun rights case before Supreme Court with massive consequences  Schumer leaves door open for second vote on bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (Ill.), a Democratic member of the group, declared Tuesday he is a strong supporter of the amendment but stopped short of saying how he would vote if it comes up in committee. 

“I support it and hope we can find a way to resolve it. It’s a fair thing to do,” Durbin said.


Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Biden administration stokes frustration over Canada Schumer blasts McCarthy for picking people who 'supported the big lie' for Jan. 6 panel MORE (D-N.Y.), a Reid lieutenant and another member of group, is a co-sponsor of legislation that served as the template for the amendment, the Uniting American Families Act. 

Durbin and Schumer are members of the Judiciary Committee and either one could strike down Leahy’s amendment by voting with Republicans against it. 

Democrats control 10 seats on the panel to the Republicans’ eight. The other Democratic members of the panel are expected to back the Leahy measure. 

Leahy also filed an amendment exempting the immigration status of same-sex couples from restrictions established by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) if a state or another country recognizes their unions.

Durbin and Schumer are leading contenders to someday replace Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSenate hopefuls embrace nuking filibuster Biden fails to break GOP 'fever' Nevada governor signs law making state first presidential primary MORE (Nev.) as Democratic leader. They have come under pressure from prominent Democratic fundraisers and gay-rights advocates to support the Leahy legislation.

“It will be interesting how Durbin and Schumer vote because they have huge [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] constituencies and citizens in their states, and I can’t imagine them not supporting the Leahy amendment,” said David Mixner, a prominent Democratic fundraiser and political strategist. “Since when do we separate a whole group of American citizens and say, ‘These rights apply to everyone, but not LGBT citizens.’”

Mixner said it would be a “moral outrage” if the Senate passed immigration legislation that discriminated against same-sex couples. 

Leahy is one of the biggest allies of gay-rights advocates, who do not want him to succumb to colleagues who would prefer the amendment not come up for a vote. 

“Protecting bi-national same-sex couples is critical in moving immigration reform forward in an inclusive way,” said Allison Herwitt, legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign, which supports equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. 

Herwitt noted that Durbin and Schumer have given little indication how they will vote. 

“Durbin and Schumer believe they are in a tough political situation,” she said. 

Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said Thursday’s markup will be an early test for the Gang of Eight’s unity.

“We’ll see pretty early on [Thursday] what the mood is and what the vibe is and whether the Gang of Eight is working in sync or not. That will make a big difference in what amendments get through,” Kelley said.

Gay-rights advocates said Wednesday they didn’t know when Leahy will offer his amendment to require equal treatment for same-sex couples. One source predicted it would come relatively late in the markup, which is expected to span a couple of weeks.

Durbin said even if Leahy’s amendment does not pass in committee, the Supreme Court will soon address discrimination against same-sex couples. The high court is deciding challenges to California’s Proposition 8, which limits marriage to heterosexual couples, and to DOMA, which restricts federal benefits to heterosexual marriages. 

“If they reach a decision while we’re in the process of markup, it may resolve the issue,” he said.

Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinManaging the US dollar to pay for congressional infrastructure plans Duckworth, Pressley introduce bill to provide paid family leave for those who experience miscarriage Senate Democrats call for Medicaid-like plan to cover non-expansion states MORE (D-Wis.), the first openly gay member of the upper chamber, pointed out that gay-rights advocates are impatient for progress.

“I feel very strongly we have to extend these protections for all,” she said. “With all the progress being made, we want to make progress on this too.” 

Flake and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform MORE (S.C.) are the two Republican members of the Gang of Eight on the Judiciary Committee. They will feel pressure from conservative activists to vote for Republican amendments to place restrictions on the pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. 

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia US launches second Somalia strike in week Biden's misinformation crackdown spotlights partisan divide on content reform MORE (R-Utah) has proposed moving the cutoff date for illegal immigrants eligible for legal status to 2009. The bill now puts the cutoff on Dec. 31, 2011. 

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections MORE (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel, has filed an amendment to keep illegal immigrants caught in deportation proceedings from applying for legal status. 

Another Grassley amendment would require the Department of Homeland Security to declare it will place into deportation proceedings any illegal immigrants who fail to qualify for “registered provisional immigrant” status, which critics say would deter many illegal immigrants from applying for legal status. 

Pro-immigrant advocates will push Democrats to support an amendment filed by Feinstein to move the cutoff date for eligibility to the date of the law’s enactment. 

“It’s a very important change. The point of the legalization process is to wipe the slate clean,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice.

Graham and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey MORE (R-Ariz.), another member of the gang, said Feinstein’s proposal is a nonstarter.

“I disagree. It’s a carefully crafted compromise,” McCain said.

Graham warned it would provoke “a run on the border.”