Monday, June 10, 2013 | 2 a.m.
For months, immigration advocates have been making the case for comprehensive reforms as a series of big ideas, from border security to pathways to citizenship.
But the fate of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate now rests on whether it can withstand a march of nittier, grittier tests posed by amendments. How Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid allows lawmakers to present those amendments may determine whether the next three weeks resemble an obstacle course or a minefield.
“I’ve indicated I’d like to have an amendment process where people can have their amendments,” Reid told the Sun in an interview Friday, adding this condition: “If the amendments are trying to improve the bill.”
Reid has largely kept his hands off the immediate, day-to-day progression of the immigration bill thus far.
He left it to the Gang of Eight to write it, the Senate Judiciary Committee to fine-tune it, and it will be that committee’s chairman, Sen. Pat Leahy, who manages it on the floor.
But as majority leader, it is still up to Reid to control how, and how many, amendments to the immigration bill will be put to the full Senate for a vote.
This year’s immigration bill is no stranger to amendments. The Judiciary Committee was presented with upwards of 300 of them during its review of the Gang of Eight bill last month; the committee voted on more than 200 and incorporated more than 100 to the bill that proceeds to the full Senate.
Many of those that didn’t make the Judiciary Committee’s cut are expected to resurface in the Senate beginning this week.
Already, senators such as Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, have begun to leverage their vote on pet issues. For Hatch, it’s back taxes: Without a guarantee that undocumented immigrants will have to pay back taxes before they can be put on a pathway to citizenship, he said he won’t pledge his vote for the bill.
The Judiciary Committee rejected amendments Hatch proposed to that effect in committee, arguing it would be too difficult to calculate owed taxes on wages that were paid under the table, often with no record keeping.
Some Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, also have stepped forward to make specific demands. Manchin wants to see the education requirements under the Dream Act portion of the bill stiffened.
For the past decade, the Dream Act proposal has been envisioned as putting young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children on a pathway to citizenship if they enroll in college or enlist in the military. Manchin wants instead to require applicants to have graduated from college to be eligible.
Even Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a star Republican player in the Gang of Eight that drafted the bill, said in the past few days that he would not be able to vote for the immigration reform unless certain border security features were stepped up via amendment. Reid said he found Rubio’s change of heart “somewhat illogical.”
With only 53 or 54 senators of the 60 needed fully on board with immigration reform right now, nabbing on-the-fence votes is critical to the bill’s success.
That is especially true as of this week, with the passing of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Lautenberg, a liberal Democrat, is being replaced by that state’s Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, a self-described “conservative Republican,” for the next four months; a switch that Reid said “doesn’t make things easier.”
Reid has been known to broker deals to get votes in the past, most famously when he handed out favors under the health care bill to get reluctant Senate Democrats to vote for the Affordable Care Act.
But this time, Reid said, he won’t cater to individual senators’ a la carte demands under immigration reform.
“People who are nitpicking this better be very careful because the American people are watching, and they want something done,” Reid said. “We’ll just see if the people who oppose this legislation are going to try to improve it or to kill it.”
Reid’s limits are essentially three: He won’t tolerate amendments that are “nonrelevant” or “nongermane” or if it seems “obvious that they’ll be trying to kill the bill.”
“I have committed to as open an amendment process as possible,” Reid said Friday on the Senate floor. “I don’t want to say totally open because sometimes, with the procedures we have here ... people throw monkey wrenches into things and we’re not able to do as we wanted to do.”
Reid highlighted one forthcoming amendment from Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a sweeping proposal to mandate 100 percent border surveillance before undocumented immigrants can receive green cards, as the type that he would call a “poison pill.”
“I’ve heard that Sen. Cornyn from Texas, that he wants to make the border more secure,” Reid said. “Let’s think about this: We now have 20,000 border patrol agents ... almost 700 miles of fences, we have 300 cameras, X-ray machines, we have nine drones floating around.
“The money for the border, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and others in six years has gone up 85 percent. I think that’s pretty good the way things now stand.”
When asked what he planned to do to circumvent such amendments, Reid suggested his hands are tied.
“We always have problems here because the rules are very strict,” Reid said. “If you have an amendment pending, unless everyone agrees you can set them aside, you can’t bring another one up.”
But Reid has past experience maneuvering on immigration amendments to at least minimize the number of direct hits the immigration bill has to withstand.
Six years ago, Reid sought to streamline the final days of comprehensive immigration reform by queuing up several proposals in what is known as a “clay pigeon” amendment. Reid used it in 2007 – only the third and most recent time it has been employed in recent Senate history – to limit the debate on immigration and force votes on certain amendments.
Still, it was an amendment that ultimately scuttled what appeared to be a solid bipartisan support for immigration reform in 2007, foreshadowing the importance of how Reid elects to deal with the issue this go-round.
If Reid is keeping the clay pigeon tactic in his bag of back-up tricks this time, he didn’t tip his hand in the Sun’s interview. But he did creep close to daring senators who oppose the bill to complain that he was trying to rush a bill or any component of immigration reform through.
“They’ve had months, more than a month to study this,” Reid said. “If people read four pages a day of this very large bill, they would have been through it a very long time ago.”
Considering that the bill is 844 pages long and was released in April, Reid’s math may be a little shaky. But his resolve is not.
“I’m going to get it done by the Fourth of July,” he said, adding that he was “not going to accept” the idea of missing the self-imposed deadline.
When asked why he’s so sure this round will be any different than 2007, Reid speaks of personal evolution.
“My evolvement since then has been fairly significant,” he said, recalling three immigrant narratives that he has raised often this year: that of his father-in-law, whose migration from Russia let Reid meet the woman he would marry; that of his favorite would-be Dreamer Astrid Silva, who writes him letters about her undocumented experience that she has hand-delivered to him at nearly every campaign event since 2010; and that of the unnamed employee at his residence in the Ritz Carlton in Washington, who begged him on hands and knees to do something about immigration reform so he could have a chance of seeing his wife, who lives outside the United States, again.
“So yeah, I’ve changed,” Reid said. “The politics, that’s not the deal; the law is important and I do my best in the politics and the law. But for me, this is a moral issue.”
And though he doesn’t plan to hold anybody else’s hand through it, he expects at least 59 other senators to make the same personal transition.
“People should be very aware of how things have changed since the last time we had this on the floor,” Reid said. “When we did things on the floor, the people who wanted us to get something done was 1 percent more than the people who didn’t want us to get anything done. Now it’s 40 percent or so. It’s changed dramatically.
“Eighty percent of the American people, Democrat, Republican and Independent, want us to do something about fixing our broken immigration system,” Reid said. “Now maybe they’ll do the same thing with this that they did with guns (background checks), which 90 percent of the American people supported. But I think that they’d better be very careful. ... American people support this overwhelmingly.”