Immigration reform: Senate Republicans on the cusp of buying in?

Republican senators are bringing new momentum to the bid to boost support for immigration reform, even as the GOP-controlled House strikes a harsher tone.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee (c.), who is emerging as a key player in the Senate bid for immigration reform, jokes with reporters as he departs following the weekly Republican caucus luncheon on Capitol Hill Monday.

Two pragmatic Senate Republicans are working furiously with Senate immigration reformers to strike a compromise on a package of amendments to the bipartisan reform bill, offering up the Senate’s most realistic chance of passing a reform bill with the slew of GOP votes that the bill’s authors have long coveted.  

“We have some people on our side of the aisle that aren’t going to support the immigration bill, period,” says Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who along with Sen. John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota are working on the GOP’s amendment package.

Yet “there are a number of people on our side of the aisle that if we can just get it tailored a little bit with a few other amendments, [they] might be willing to send it over to the House,” Senator Corker says. “And there are a lot of people who think it might come back over here in a little better form than it leaves.”

What makes the effort by Corker and Senator Hoeven, two junior lawmakers with no previous immigration chops, so notable is that it appears to represent the best shot at striking the careful balance between assuaging Republican concerns about a lack of specific border-security requirements in the bill and Democratic fears about new security requirements that could obstruct a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented residents.

By adding amendments from a handful of other Republicans on top of that border-security compromise, the bill could deliver as many as a dozen GOP senators as-yet uncommitted to the bill, guaranteeing its passage and, the bill’s authors hope, pushing the House to the negotiating table on immigration. The Senate is currently split between 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans.

“Corker and I are trying to gather enough of these things together so we can get a meaningful, bipartisan group on the bill and frankly something that gets broad public support," says Hoeven. "I think these things are needed to get broad public support.... That’s not just important for the Senate, but I think it’s going to make a big difference about what happens in the House.”

The issue of what happens in the House of Representatives took on added import on Tuesday, as House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said he would not bring any immigration bills to the floor that would fail to garner support from more than half of his restive conference.

Speaker Boehner’s declaration underlined something Senate immigration reformers have been saying for months: The Senate has to show a large trove of Republican votes for immigration reform in order to give cover for the majority of House Republicans to do the same.

But key to unlocking those conservative votes is, as Boehner said Tuesday, stronger and more specific border-security measures. The Senate’s current plan requires the Department of Homeland Security to offer a plan for securing the border and increasing border fencing within six months of the legislation’s enactment.

But Hoeven and Corker are working with the bill’s authors – the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” – and a number of other members to craft a specific border-security plan to be written by Congress.

“The criticism we’ve heard is, ‘Well what if the border plan isn’t good? What if the border plan that the Department of Homeland Security comes up with is inadequate or not a good plan?’ ” says Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, an author of the Senate legislation. “The solution for that is to put the specific plan in the bill now so we know what it is, and to do that plan based on input we’re getting from border patrol agents and people on the front lines, and that’s what’s going on as we speak.”

Second, the package of amendments will likely include requests from Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio on the employment verification system known as E-Verify; Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, on workplace protections; and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, on the federal benefits available to newly legalized immigrants, among other bills.

Given that the GOP’s main border security offer to this point, a bill by Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, was dismissed as a “poison pill” by Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and a number of the bill’s authors, a compromise appeared far from reach, despite comments from Senator Cornyn that he would attempt to find middle ground.

The Corker-Hoeven package is “better than the Cornyn amendment, and we’ll look at the details,” says Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York. “I for one am glad that there are other Republican senators who are looking to get to an agreement.”

Unlike the drawn-out nature of much of the immigration debate,Senator Reid’s vow to pass the bill before the Fourth of July congressional recess means senators are steaming toward a final decision on the package. Many senators agreed that they would have the issue largely finalized by Wednesday afternoon. 

“I’m encouraged, but we still have a ways to go,” says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. “It is something that we believe can possibly be reached. By tomorrow, we will know whether this thing is coming together or is scrap.”

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