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November 27, 2015

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In immigration debate, familiar signs of strain resurface



Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks with reporters about immigration reform, intelligence leaks and other issues following a Democratic strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

After a promisingly bipartisan start to immigration reform Tuesday, senators retreated to either side of the party line Wednesday, trading procedural barbs that prevented lawmakers from voting on amendments.

The breakdown began when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested the Senate vote on the first group of five immigration amendments, including two that would have required the border to be certified as secure before undocumented immigrants could get provisional legal or permanent resident status.

Reid, who doesn’t support such changes, suggested all amendments have to pass a filibuster-proof, 60-vote threshold. And that’s when Sen. Chuck Grassley — the author of one of them — cried foul.

“There is no reason, particularly in this first week, and the beginning of the process, to be blocking our amendments with a 60-vote margin,” Grassley said. “It really looks like the fix is in and the bill is rigged to pass basically as it is.”

Reid has been in a standoff with Republicans for years about what he alleges is overuse of the filibuster by GOP. So it was with apparent reserved delight that Reid pointed out the irony of the moment.

“How many times have we heard the Republican leader say on this floor and publicly that the new reality in the United States Senate is 60?” Reid said. “I mean, this is what he said. That’s why we’re having 60 votes on virtually everything.”

It still remains unclear whether Reid plans to make good on implied threats that he will seek to undo the filibuster rule for the remainder of this Congress. Reid has said, however, that he will not allow anything, especially a change in the rules, to interfere with the immigration bill.

But it wasn’t just Reid who went into combat mode against amendments Wednesday: Gang of Eight Sens. John McCain, a Republican, and Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, laid into Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn Wednesday afternoon over the details of his sweeping border security amendment, which Reid has already identified as a poison pill.

Cornyn’s amendment would also delay the provisional status and pathways to citizenship the Senate immigration bill creates for undocumented immigrants until border security markers are met. Cornyn’s bill also steps up those benchmarks, demanding, among other things, almost three times as many new Border Patrol agents as are called for in the underlying bill.

Cornyn argued that his bill paid for all the changes from a trust fund already established under the bill to pay for border security and other reforms.

“It’s incredible that the senator should stand there and say, ‘Yeah, we’re adding these thousands of personnel, but we’re not adding to the cost,’” McCain said, accusing Cornyn of eschewing “basic first-grade mathematics” in proposing he could divert trust fund money to a new endeavor without driving up the overall cost of the bill.

“It is quite arguable that the entire trust fund is used by those 6,500 [extra border patrol agents]. That would mean no drones, no helicopters; it may mean no fencing,” Schumer said. “It will take a highly efficient way of preventing people from crossing the border and replace it with an inefficient way.”

But whether it’s Reid or a two-party tag team of senators resisting amendments on the basis of procedure or substance, some Republicans whose votes may be critical to passing immigration reform are starting to bristle at the pushback.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is the only non-Gang of Eight Republican who voted for the comprehensive immigration bill in the Judiciary Committee — with the caveat that his continued support would depend on whether the full Senate cleared his amendments requiring undocumented immigrants to pay back taxes.

Hatch is one of the Republican senators who started to cast serious doubts about his continued support Wednesday, after it became clear that the initial momentum to consider amendments was faltering in the face of political disagreements.

“I was promised by leaders in the Gang of Eight that they would work with me … and yet I’ve had some indication over the last few days that maybe they’re not going to work with me,” Hatch said. “As I’ve said, I’d like to support the bill, and make no mistake about it, I don’t want people stiffing me on things I consider to be important … and I’m not the kind of guy who takes that lightly.”

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