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Senators Hopeful About Immigration Deal

April 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SEN. BILL FRIST, R-Tenn., Majority Leader: We have had a huge breakthrough.

KWAME HOLMAN: A week of sometimes bitter Senate debate seemed a distant memory this morning, when a long bipartisan lineup of members went before cameras to say they had reached general agreement on sweeping immigration reform legislation.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: When most Americans are made aware of what we have done here so far, and what I believe I’m very optimistic that we can accomplish, will meet the approval of the majority of our citizens. That’s what the Senate is supposed to do. This is how the Senate is supposed to act.

KWAME HOLMAN: Those senators and others worked late last night to craft a compromise that was presented today, under the names of Republicans Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida.

It would create pathways for most of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to gain legal status and eventual citizenship. Under the broad parameters of the deal, undocumented people here more than five years would have to pay a fine, pass background security checks, and wait several years before earning legal status.

Those who have been here more than two years, but less than five, could obtain a temporary work visa. However, they first would have to exit the country and reapply to come back. Those in this country less than two years would not be eligible.

Finding that middle ground on the treatment of undocumented residents had proved elusive in the Senate for weeks and seemed unlikely as recently as yesterday.

SEN. BILL FRIST: We are going to have to change course here, the course from the last several days.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators were at loggerheads over which of several reform proposals they should vote on and when. Most Democrats favored a Judiciary Committee bill, similar to one co-authored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Edward Kennedy.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY, D-Mass.: It garnered 12 members of the Judiciary Committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, in a bipartisan way, after seven days of hearings, six days of markups, and scores of different amendments. But why is it that those that worked, and worked hard, and looked at this and studied it and studied hard, and have days of hearings and a lot of work, why should we be denied the opportunity to have a vote on the total package?

KWAME HOLMAN: But a solid group of Republicans favored a bill that treated undocumented workers much more strictly. Senators on that side made multiple efforts to amend the Judiciary Committee bill and were blocked repeatedly by the parliamentary tactics of Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD, R-Colo.: And I would like to call up that amendment, number 3216, for consideration.

SENATOR: Is there objection?

SENATOR: Senator, I object on behalf of the minority leader.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Reid explained his reasoning on Tuesday.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., Minority Leader: We’re happy to take a look at amendments that don’t damage the integrity of the bill. But if it is going to be, in the estimation of the unified Democrats, an — an effort to denigrate this bipartisan bill, then they won’t have votes on those amendments.

KWAME HOLMAN: The tactics drew the ire of Majority Leader Bill Frist, who assembled most of the Senate’s 55 Republicans in the chamber. John Cornyn of Texas spoke for them.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: We know that there are, on average, 2,300 people coming into our country each day. And each day that the Democratic leader denies us an opportunity to fix that problem, to allow this process to go forward, we’re seeing 2,300 more people come into the country illegally. And I just hope and pray, Mr. President, that it is not a criminal, that it is not a terrorist, that it is not someone who intends to do us harm. But, indeed, it could well be.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even John McCain, author of the bill Democrats were protecting, was critical of Senator Reid.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: And I want to assure the Democrat leader, those of us on this side follow the leadership of our elected leader. The majority rules. The majority sets the agenda here in the United States Senate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, negotiations off the Senate floor were intensifying, finally culminating in the Hagel-Martinez deal announced this morning.

And while a procedural vote still was on in the Senate chamber, most members involved had rushed out to join the celebratory press conference already in progress.

But Illinois Democrat Barack Obama cautioned that, because the House already has passed a much different immigration bill, victory was not yet assured.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, D-Ill.: There is concern within our caucus that, if there are a series of amendments that are offered to gut the bill, or if you go into conference committee, it gets hijacked and comes back in a much weaker version, that it would not represent a success. It would not represent the values of the American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: And a noticeably smaller group of Republicans, unhappy that their positions were left out of the agreement, vowed to keep pushing.

SEN. JON KYL, R-Ariz.: I would argue, therefore, that the basic principle which we have been concerned about, jumping ahead in line, getting on an automatic path to citizenship, and being allowed to be permanently in the United States, whether or not there is a job for you, are not affected at all by this so-called compromise, which is why we have to oppose it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Members hope to wrap up Senate action on immigration reform by tomorrow, when their two-week spring recess is set to begin.

JIM LEHRER: And now to two senators who have been in the thick of this immigration debate. Both are members of the Judiciary Committee: Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Senator Cornyn, do you support the compromise?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: Well, I don’t.

I have a number of amendments that I have been trying to get a vote on since last Thursday that I think would improve it. And my goal, of course, is to see comprehensive border security and immigration reform passed. But, unfortunately, amendments like prohibiting convicted felons from benefiting from the amnesty provided under this bill, we haven’t even had a chance to have a vote on those.

So, I’m not — not yet prepared to support this bill.

JIM LEHRER: Are you prepared to stop it from being passed, do everything you can?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: I — Jim, I actually want to see legislation passed. I just — I just wish the Senate had been allowed to do what the Senate was designed to do. And that is to engage in improving the legislation through the amendment process.

And what I have worried about from the beginning is that this was served up as a fait accompli, and we were told to swallow it, but unable to pass amendments which we thought would actually improve it.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, are you swallowing it?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, Dill: I am going to support it.

JIM LEHRER: You’re going to support it.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I think it has preserved the integrity of the bipartisan bill which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, after days of consideration and a number of amendments offered by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

It was a good by partisan bill that came out of the committee. The suggestions made by Senators Martinez and Hagel did not significantly change the bill. And I believe they won the support, finally, of Senator Frist and many Republican senators.

JIM LEHRER: What about Senator Cornyn and other Republicans’ point that they — they have had amendments, and your — your leader, Senator Reid, has kept them from coming up, to even be considered. What is the — what is the reason for that?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: There is a time-honored tradition in the United States Senate that, if you are in a position of strength, you try to fight off those amendments which are going to destroy your work product.

And what Senator Reid and I and other Democrats tried to do was to preserve this bipartisan bill, the Specter bill that came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We filed a cloture motion, which brings debate to a close, in an effort to force the issue. And it worked.

By this morning, we had a serious bipartisan compromise, supported by both sides of the aisle and by the president of the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Cornyn, what would have to be done to this bill to get your support, and very — and not in — not your dream bill, but just to get your support?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, first of all, we would have to not repeat the mistake we made in 1986, when we granted an amnesty to three million people. That’s what this bill does again. And I believe the American people are very tolerant and forgiving, but I don’t think they will be forgiving when we fool them again into thinking we’re actually serious about controlling our borders and illegal immigration.

JIM LEHRER: So, you mean these three categories, been here five years, been here two to five, or been here less than two, they don’t — they don’t do the trick for you?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, they don’t. And they create 12 million new green cards, permanent residents of the United States, to compete with American workers during a time, let’s say, when the economy is not doing well.

This isn’t a temporary work force that comes and goes according to the needs of the American economy, but, rather, 12 million new people who are going to compete for jobs with American workers. And I think that’s not in the best interests of the country.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, when you cut it all — all — all aside, is he right? Is it — does it create 12 million new American workers?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: They’re already here. That’s the point.

JIM LEHRER: They’re already…

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: They’re already part of the economy.

In the city of Chicago, you can hardly enter a restaurant without finding people there who are likely in undocumented status. The same thing is true about hotel room cleaning. The same thing is true about day care centers and nursing homes. They are part of the economy today.

The question is, are we going to ignore the fact that our immigration system has broken down, our borders are out of control, or are we going to do something that is comprehensive and fair? I am for just as much enforcement, almost, I think, as my colleague from Texas.

I certainly believe that we need more agents on the border and more efforts to stop illegal immigration. We need to have enforcement against those employers who are illegally employing the undocumented. But we also have to create a pathway, a long path, not amnesty, but a long path, where, over a span of 11 to 14 years, these individuals have a chance, if they work hard and play by the rules, pay their taxes, learn English, make certain that they are part of America and no criminal records, that they have a chance for legal status.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Cornyn, back to the issue you raised on the floor, that we used in our setup piece, about the 2,300 immigrants that are coming in every — illegal immigrants that are coming in every day. Does this compromise speak to that issue, in terms of border security, stopping the flow in its place as — as we speak?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I — I do agree with Senator Durbin that I do believe there is a consensus that we do need to secure our borders, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of legal commerce and traffic across the border.

But the problem is that this is just a promise at this point. No money has actually been committed to create the 10,000 or so new Border Patrol agents we need, to create the technology, the ground sensors, the unmanned aerial vehicles we need in order to create a virtual wall to protect our borders. And every day that goes by that we don’t do that makes us less safe and vulnerable.

JIM LEHRER: So, you — so you wanted — you even — you wanted more specific pieces in this legislation that spoke directly to that, right?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, that and also at the work site. We don’t even have an amendment as part of this bill that requires work site verification, so we can determine whether an individual is, in fact, eligible to work legally in the United States.

And, without that, this whole process is a farce.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, is that a — is he right; is it a farce, if you don’t have specific things in the bill about this?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Senator Cornyn may not know this fact — and I’m not holding it against him — but one of the provisions that we hope to add as part of a manager’s amendment would put more enforcement, more investigators in the workplace. And I agree with it. There are just not enough actions being brought against those who hire illegally.

JIM LEHRER: What is — what is a manager’s amendment?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, the manager’s amendment is an attempt at the end of the bill to bring together some parts that the manager thinks should be in the final work product.

And, so, we will have a chance to do that. But let me make it clear. We’re not going to be able to move forward, to bring these people out of the shadows, to know who they are, where they live, and where they work, unless there’s an opportunity for legal status.

The approach that many have taken is that we will just be tough at the borders and things will get better. We have tried that for several years. And the amount of immigration, illegal immigration, in the United States has grown dramatically. Enforcement alone is not the answer.

JIM LEHRER: Is it your position, Senator Durbin, that you will — you will do manager’s amendments, whatever it takes, to answer Senator Cornyn and his colleagues’ complaints about the specifics of the border security, in exchange for the 5-2 procedures for those people who are already here, the 12 million who are already here?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, we’re going to have strong border provisions….

JIM LEHRER: No matter what?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: … and strong enforcement, no matter what.

I mean, we are committed to that on both sides of the aisle. I don’t think we would have the bipartisan support we bring it — bring to the table otherwise. And I might say to my colleague from the state of Texas, a former governor of the state of Texas who happens to be president thinks this is a pretty good bill.

JIM LEHRER: What about that, Senator Cornyn?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, the president hasn’t endorsed this compromise.

What he has endorsed is the process, so we can, hopefully, get this matter to the House, the conference committee, and work it out, and get a bill to his desk. But the problem is, this bill, as currently written, is so different from the House bill, I think it’s a potential train wreck getting ready to happen, and I think, actually, risks that no bill will be passed. And I think that would be a travesty.

JIM LEHRER: Are you prepared to participate in a filibuster to keep it in — in the Senate?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: I don’t intend to filibuster it.

I — I do intend to continue to move it along. But — but, Jim, the problem is my friend from Illinois and other senators can’t have a secret plan to write their own bill and — and eliminate the rest of us from the process. We’re entitled to have fair debate and amendments on the floor.

And I’m willing to abide an up-or-down vote on — on those amendments. I don’t like to lose, but that is how democracy works. But, so far, democracy has been thwarted in this process, because we haven’t had a chance for those up-or-down votes on the Senate floor.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: It wasn’t a secret process.

Of course, Senator Martinez from Florida, Republican, Senator Hagel from the state of Nebraska, another Republican, joined with other Republican senators in crafting this compromise.

The door was open for others to join, but Senator Cornyn and some have been opposed to most approaches that we suggest. And I hope we can find some common ground before it’s all over. Work out something behind the scenes?

JIM LEHRER: Senator Cornyn, is there anything going on now that we don’t know about, or is it all out in public? Durbin and Cornyn are talking, and two other senators are talking. It’s all in public. Are you trying to work out something behind the scenes with the — with the folks of like minds?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well — well, my door is always open. I mean, I would like to find some reasonable compromise. Nothing’s ever perfect that comes out of the United States Senate. It is a legislative process, where compromise is part of it.

But, so far, I feel like this proposal has been served up as a final product. And we have been told, this is as good as it gets, and you have no voice in the process.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, you are part of the leadership on the Democratic side. What is the schedule? When does this thing come to a head?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: That is a really good question, Jim. And I will tell you now that we are facing a platter of procedural spaghetti. We have more…

JIM LEHRER: A platter of procedural spaghetti. OK.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: We have more pending cloture votes and opportunities for delay. And I certainly hope that we don’t take advantage of this mess.

I — I hope that we really roll up our sleeves and finish it. This is an historic opportunity to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It’s not going to come along very often.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what about Senator Cornyn’s point, Senator Durbin? You can pass this thing out of the — the Senate, and there is this other version over there that has been passed by the House. And he says a train wreck is coming up over the hill.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I can tell you that there is a world of difference between the approach taken by the House Republicans. Chairman Sensenbrenner’s bill is strictly enforcement and is as punitive as any legislation I have seen.

To say that those who are involved in providing humanitarian assistance, nurses and volunteers and people of faith, are going to be charged with an aggravated felony if they assist someone who is undocumented just shows you the extreme that they went to in the House. That is unacceptable. And if we are being asked to move in that direction, this is not going to be a productive enterprise.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Cornyn, is that unacceptable to you, the House approach, unacceptable to you?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I — I agree with Senator Durbin, to the extent that I don’t believe we ought to criminalize people for trying to provide for their family and — and — or people who are providing humanitarian services.

And, frankly, no one supports, in the Senate, what Senator Durbin was just criticizing about the House. But I do think that it’s important to try to find ways to bridge the House approach with the Senate approach. And, right now, I have seen a — an effort really to try to just jam this through, without giving an opportunity to other senators who have a different opinion or approach an opportunity to have their voice heard and votes on those approaches.

So, I don’t think that’s a — a good way to approach the kind of compromises that are going to have to take place if we’re going to be successful.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Cornyn, have you talked to any — Congressman Sensenbrenner or any other of your Republican colleagues in the House to see what they might — might finally accept, in terms of a — the other side of the coin, beyond enforcement?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, in the past, I have.

And — and, of course, their desire would be to deal with security of the border first and to deal with any sort of temporary or guest-worker program later. I can tell you that there is general opposition to repeating the mistake of 1986, the amnesty, which is generally acknowledged to be a failure.

And I think that is what we risk by taking this particular compromise, if it goes out of the Senate over in its current form.

JIM LEHRER: So, I take it, Senator Cornyn, and, also, Senator Durbin, that both of you would agree with the Democratic leader of the Senate, that we are not there yet?

Senator Cornyn?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: I — from my perspective, we are not there yet. But I am willing to have the process move forward, as long as the process is fair and allows for all voices to be heard and — and gives us votes on amendments that I think will improve the final product.

JIM LEHRER: So, when you say you are — you are willing to let the process move forward, you mean you are willing to vote for this bill, if you can get some votes on your amendments first?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I’m willing not to — I’m willing to…

JIM LEHRER: Even if you lose your amendments?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: I’m — no, if I lose the amendment, I — and I will — I will take my licks and — and respect the democratic process.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: But I’m — I don’t agree that anyone should be frozen out or anybody should be shunted aside because they are afraid of the amendments that we have to offer.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, we’re not there yet?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: We’re not quite there yet. And I think we have to go through an amendment process. And I hope that we will have the same bipartisan coalition, which was congratulating itself just a few feet from here earlier today will stand and beat back those amendments, which might eviscerate this good bipartisan agreement.

JIM LEHRER: But you agree with Senator Cornyn that there should be votes on his amendments?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: There will be votes on amendments, but, of course, as you know, in the Senate, you can overdo it.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I think we need to have amendments and debate.

JIM LEHRER: I think I have just about overdone what I can do here, between the two of you. Thank you both very much.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Thank you.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Thanks, Jim.