Senate on Verge of Border-Security Deal

Fawn Johnson

Senate negotiators are on the verge of a breakthrough on border security that is designed to bring a handful of Republicans on board for final passage of a sweeping immigration bill, lawmakers involved in the talks said Wednesday.

The deal has grown out of an effort by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D, to bolster the border-security benchmarks already in the bill. Many Republicans think those provisions are weak, but the bill's GOP sponsors can only go so far in pushing tougher benchmarks without risking protest from Democrats.

Democrats have categorically rejected a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to make green-card eligibility for immigrants on provisional visas contingent on the administration achieving border metrics, like stopping 90 percent of people who attempt to cross the border. Hoeven and Corker had originally pushed for the same 90 percent apprehension rate, although measured differently, but that idea faced blowback from some members of the "Gang of Eight" senators who drafted the underlying immigration bill.

Corker said Wednesday that negotiators have resolved their differences over the 90 percent benchmark, but he would not confirm rumors that it had been removed or watered down.

Details about the Corker-Hoeven deal are sketchy. It started off as an alternative to Cornyn's proposed "trigger" for green cards using many of the same benchmarks but with more objective measurement techniques.

Corker told reporters Wednesday not to rely on earlier reports about the original version. "It's a different approach than what was being discussed before," he said. The "Gang of Eight" sponsors of the immigration bill and other lawmakers involved in crafting the border-security deal are shopping it to their respective caucuses, Corker said.

Whatever they come up with—stay tuned—it could fundamentally change the outlook for the immigration bill in the Senate. Corker said he wants his border-security plan to make Republicans feel comfortable about voting for an immigration bill because they know the border security piece is solid.

"If we pull it off, it will be the most dramatic effort I've seen since I've been in Congress to secure the border," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a "gang" member who has consulted with Corker and Hoeven on the amendment. "It's a key moment in this effort to pass this bill. This is sort of the defining 24 to 36 hours," Graham said.

The "gang" has been meeting nightly as the Senate immigration debate has been moving forward, and they know that Republicans' reluctance to embrace their bill is largely based on skepticism that its enforcement language is sufficient. The Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the bill, released Tuesday, did not help matters on the border-security front. It projected that the "net annual flow of unauthorized residents would decrease by about 25 percent relative to what would occur under current law."

In other words, by CBO's estimates, instead of 400,000 new undocumented immigrants per year, the country would have 300,000 with the Senate bill.

"The CBO report was really helpful" to the border-security negotiators, Corker said. "You've got a report that says it's only going to reduce illegal immigration by 25 percent if you implemented the bill as it was. I think it just added to the momentum of our discussions about doing something very substantial on border security."

Graham was similarly vague on details, but he said the metrics they are discussing will surprise people. "Some people are going to say, 'What the hell have y'all done?'"

About half of the Republicans in the Senate could be up for grabs on the immigration bill, according to aides who are watching the debate. Corker said the discussions are designed to bring enough of the 'maybes' on board to "go to the House with momentum"—i.e., with the 70 or more votes that the bill's sponsors have been seeking.

Cornyn, who is sticking by his own amendment, was dubious that the negotiators could pull it off. "It's all based on inputs," he said, implying that Corker and Hoeven are discussing metrics that are distinct from the "outcomes" that Cornyn's amendment seeks. "I think they're kind of brainstorming. It's a moving target," Cornyn said.