Senate panel passes immigration reform bill: how Republicans helped shape it (+video)

The immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 13-to-5 vote Tuesday night, received some tweaks aimed at attracting more GOP support during its next key vote on the Senate floor.

By , Staff writer

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    Senate Judiciary Committee members Charles Schumer (D) of New York (l.) and Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, confer on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, as the committee assembled to work on a landmark immigration bill to secure the border and offer citizenship to millions. The panel passed immigration reform bill on a 13-to-5 vote Tuesday night.
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The Senate’s comprehensive immigration-reform legislation marches on.

A bill that would be the most sweeping rewrite of America’s immigration laws in two decades not only passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 13-to-5 vote Tuesday night, but also sustained no dramatic alterations to the bipartisan framework fashioned by the bill’s authors, the “Gang of Eight.”

The bill did receive, however, a slew of tweaks and adjustments aimed at attracting more GOP support during its next key vote on the floor of the US Senate. Tuesday’s vote brought commentary from several key Republicans that augur well for the bill’s prospects.

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“I appreciate the work of the Senate Judiciary Committee in taking the bill my colleagues and I introduced in April as a starting point for debate and making improvements to it over the past few weeks,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida in a statement after the bill’s passage. “Through an extensive, open and transparent process, they have made real improvements to the bill.”

The four “Gang” members on the Judiciary committee – Charles Schumer (D) of New York, Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina – were joined by the eight other Democrats on the panel and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah in voting affirmatively.

Senator Hatch’s support of the bill in committee came after he and Senator Schumer hashed out a deal on a handful of amendments that Hatch wanted regarding high-skilled workers, long of interest to the veteran Utahn. These measures would make it easier for technology companies and others to hire the talented but temporary workers that come through the H-1B program.

Hatch also secured a compromise amendment requiring a test of a biometric entry-exit system at America’s 10 largest airports in the next two years, followed by an expanded test at the 30 largest US airports four years later. A biometric system, which could capture a foreign traveler’s fingerprints or scan his or her iris, was a frequently cited desire of Republican members of the panel.

While Hatch’s final support of the bill will be contingent on another series of amendments he’ll offer on the Senate floor, the committee adopted other conservative changes to the bill that may accentuate its appeal to Republicans on the Senate floor. These changes include the stipulation that the Department of Homeland Security must turn back or apprehend 90 percent of would-be border crossers along the entire Southern border – not just in high-risk sectors as the bill originally required – before the nation’s millions of illegal immigrants can become citizens.

The changes were only a handful of the more than 200 amendments that the committee considered over five days and more than 30 hours of debate and votes. About a third of the 141 changes that were approved came from the panel’s conservative senators.

The process drew acclaim from even the most deep-seated opponents of the legislation, with several Republican senators thanking Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont in their closing comments for organizing what the panel’s ranking Republican, Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, called a “productive debate.”

However, senators agreed that not everything was up for amendment, for fear that the delicate balance struck by the Gang of Eight could be undone. That group’s two Republican members on the panel hung with Democrats to defeat a slew of amendments regarding amped-up border security and forced widespread implementation of a biometric entry-exit system.

In one of the committee’s most emotional moments, a handful of Democrats said they would vote with all the panel’s Republicans to defeat Senator Leahy’s amendment allowing same-sex couples to be recognized by the federal government for immigration purposes – because that measure would all but guarantee GOP opposition to the bill on the Senate floor. Leahy withdrew the amendment.

“You’ve got me on immigration,” Senator Graham said. “You don’t have me on marriage.”

Several key Republicans indicated they would not attempt to block the measure from entering debate.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who as his party’s leader in the Senate is often the frontman for holding back bills the GOP conference doesn’t like, told reporters he would vote to break an initial filibuster “so we can get on the bill and see ... if we're able to pass a bill that actually moves the ball in the right direction.”

“I think the Gang of Eight has made a substantial contribution to moving the issue forward,” Senator McConnell said Tuesday.

Two of the bill’s critics in the Judiciary Committee, Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas and Senator Grassley, both said they would vote affirmatively to move to debate on the bill. Such support makes it all but guaranteed that the measure has a quick route to further amendments on the Senate floor when Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada takes the measure up after the Memorial Day recess.

The fact that senators on both sides see a pressing need to move legislation forward even if they don’t agree with all of it was embodied best by Grassley, who said he would have voted for the bill if it meant the difference between it dying in committee or being sent to the full Senate.

With a broken immigration system, Grassley said, it’s incumbent on Congress to give the issue the fullest hearing possible – passing bills in both chambers and then untangling the differences in a conference committee.

“I believe we have to move this bill along, and I believe that nobody has their mind made up exactly what this bill is going to look like when this bill comes out of conference,” he said in his closing statement Tuesday. “In the final analysis, I won’t know if I’m for this bill or not [until] it gets to that final product.”

He added, “If this system is broken, we all ought to take every opportunity we can ... to make sure it is fixed and fixed right.”

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