Monday, June 3, 2013 | 2 a.m.
D.C. lawmakers don’t know when the debate will begin. They don’t know yet how much the bill they are debating will cost. And they have no idea whether the House’s forthcoming contribution will stymie the Senate’s plans.
But in Congress, one thing is for sure: In the month between now and Independence Day, Congress will be all but exclusively focused on immigration reform.
The first staging of this long-anticipated legislation will be in the Senate, where it has been six years since the last concerted attempt at comprehensive immigration reform failed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised to clear the legislative decks to make way for the measure better known as the Gang of Eight bill.
It went through an initial round of vetting late last month in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers sifted through more than 300 proposed amendments, adopting more than 100. Three Republicans joined Democrats on the committee to support its passage.
But the road to passage in the Senate is more unevenly paved than the one through the Judiciary Committee, where filibusters cannot be threatened and Democrats — as the majority party — can control the process when they stick together as a bloc.
In the Senate
In the full Senate, those opposed to the bill need just 40 votes — as opposed to a majority of votes on committee — to keep the immigration train from leaving the Senate’s station.
Leading Democrats have differed about whether they think the Senate has enough votes to stave off such a potential threat, with Gang of Eight member Bob Menendez speculating that Congress is still shy a few votes and Reid saying it would be “pretty easy” to get them.
But any one amendment on the floor could derail the process long before lawmakers get to a whip count. That at least is the lesson of 2007, when unsteady momentum for immigration fractured after the Senate approved an amendment — 49-48 — to sunset guest-worker programs after five years. Reid and now-President Barack Obama still get occasional heat for having voted with the majority.
This year, lawmakers come to the debate with the stars better aligned: Labor and business groups have agreed on middle ground for visas to lower-skilled workers. There also is a driving presumption that, after a 2012 election season in which Democrats commanded strong majorities of the Hispanic vote on the back of their immigration platform, Republicans would rush to sign on to whatever emerged from committee.
But so far, just the four Republicans who participated in the Gang of Eight that drafted the bill have pledged their support. Meanwhile, many Republicans who failed to fine-tune or hack off parts of the immigration bill are promising to re-raise their complaints on the Senate floor.
And that still leaves potential input from the 78 senators who have not yet been able to propose changes to the legislation because they are neither on the Judiciary Committee nor in the Gang — including Nevada’s two senators.
Such future amendments may hinge on whether the Congressional Budget Office determines whether the Senate’s immigration bill will add to the deficit over the next 10 years. The nonpartisan estimate is expected soon — before the Senate begins debating the immigration bill on a tentative start date of June 10.
Some amendments may arise in protest of the CBO score. Some conservative lawmakers have raised doubt that a 10-year cost projection is useful because people living in the country illegally will not have the status necessary to receive government benefits until after that window.
Senators also may be swayed by what, if anything, emerges from the House, where eight representatives have been putting the finishing touches on an introductory bipartisan proposal.
In the House
Although no bill has been unveiled, the House’s working draft on immigration reform will vary substantively from the Senate’s.
In the Senate’s version, for example, it will take a person in the country illegally 13 years to attain full citizenship: 10 years on provisional status, followed by a minimum of three years with a green card, before they would be eligible to apply for full citizenship. In the House bill, that time is 15 years.
The forthcoming House bill also will likely contain a clause that would potentially force immigrants who receive provisional status back to undocumented status if the government cannot guarantee that E-Verify, the government’s employment verification system, is fully operational nationwide within five years of the immigration law’s effective date.
The House bill also is expected to propose a different system of triaging family reunification visas than the overhaul proposed by the Senate. And House lawmakers are gearing up for a reckoning over temporary workers as potentially explosive as the one that took down the Senate’s last attempt at comprehensive reform. The subject of lower-skilled workers will not be part of the main bill; Democrats and Republicans will each submit independent proposals concerning the status and set ceilings for a vote.
Should the House and Senate both produce a comprehensive immigration bill, the differences are all but destined for a conference committee process, in which an appointed, bipartisan roster of lawmakers from each chamber would work out a compromise. The final product will then have to earn the approval of the House and Senate before it can be signed into law.
That seemingly inevitable process is made easier the fewer differences between the proposals. But while a House bill is expected soon, members of the Gang of Eight have not shaken hands on a deal — and are still trying to determine the most strategic moment to unveil their bill, considering the klieg lights focused on the Senate’s process.
House Speaker John Boehner has not yet promised to clear the road for the House’s immigration proposal or defer to a process underway in the House Judiciary Committee, which is considering an a la carte menu of more enforcement-minded bills. Boehner did make it clear last month, however, that he doesn’t plan to take up the Senate’s legislation, even if it passes.
House aides speculate, however, that Boehner will not wait for the Senate to finish before the House begins its debate.
Reid set the Senate a deadline of completing immigration reform by Congress’ July 4 recess, which is scheduled to begin July 1 but could be called off in part or whole. If the Senate keeps to that finish line and the House picks up the baton before the Senate reaches it, lawmakers there would have another month to work on immigration before Congress is scheduled to disband for the summer.