Immigration-Reform Advocates Brace for Flood of Amendments

Rebecca Kaplan

After two days of speeches that teed up the floor fight on immigration reform, the Senate is expected to proceed to the bill Tuesday and open its doors to a flood of amendments. But the verbal slugfest over border security is likely to dominate proceedings the rest of the week, with most of the discussions about amending the bill happening behind the scenes.

After an additional morning of debate Tuesday, the Senate will hold a cloture vote and a vote on the motion to proceed to the bill. Then, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will begin discussing which amendments will get a vote. With most lawmakers still working on their amendments—and Reid planning to seek a filing deadline of late this week or early next week—much of the action will be on the rhetorical front. The measures that may spur deal-making between their sponsors and the “Gang of Eight” likely won’t get a vote until next week or later.

The members of the gang, for their part, are set to meet Wednesday, when they will begin to sift through the amendments that have been filed and to look for changes to the bill that they feel they can make to gain Republican votes without upsetting the bill’s fundamentals.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, will continue to drive the debate with his public push for a border-security amendment that will turn the Gang of Eight’s enforcement goals into triggers for the green-card process to begin for legalized immigrants—a measure unacceptable to many Democrats. Reid has called the amendment a “poison pill,” while Cornyn criticized the majority leader for panning the amendment before reading it. Cornyn’s staffers say they hope the bill’s text will be out Tuesday, which will keep the focus on that issue.

A Democratic leadership aide said a vote on Cornyn’s amendment was more likely than not. “I don’t think it’s something we’d have trouble defeating,” the aide said, especially because most amendments will be subjected to a 60-vote threshold.

More and more, Republicans who are considered possible yes votes have coalesced around the issue of border security as the section of the bill they are targeting for change. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Gang of Eight, has publicly called for beefed-up security measures, including giving Congress (and not the Homeland Security Department) the job of writing a border strategy. Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said that his amendment—which is not yet finished—would likely complement others being authored by Cornyn and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., with whom Rubio is working closely.

On Monday, Conant circulated a list of Republican senators who have urged strengthening the border-security measures. In addition to Rubio and Jeff Flake of Arizona, a fellow Gang of Eight member, the list included Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Dean Heller of Nevada, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Coburn, and Cornyn. Over the weekend, Ayotte announced she would support the bill, becoming the first Republican beyond the Gang of Eight to formally sign on.

Paul, who is among the Republicans wanting Congress to verify that the border is secure as a condition for granting legal status to immigrants, will be the keynote speaker at an immigration forum Wednesday in Washington. As soon as Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, could call up his amendment that requires Congress to certify the border is secure, said spokesman Brian Phillips. The amendment failed on a 6-12 vote in the Judiciary Committee.

Border security is also the one issue that most clearly unites Republicans. Other issues, such as the number of guest workers who should be allowed into the country, divide those lawmakers who are seeking changes to or elimination of the legislation.

“The bill would double the number of guest workers admitted annually. Such a large influx would be disastrous for the wages and job prospects of U.S. workers,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend, a theme he hammered home on the Senate floor. On the other hand, Sens. Lee and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have advocated for reforms to the legal immigration system that expand the number of visas issued to certain types of workers.

Other measures the chamber will likely consider deal with the way back taxes are calculated and collected—an issue dear to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah—as well as gun control and same-sex binational couples. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Defense of Marriage Act in June, which would relieve Congress of a thorny issue if the law is overturned.