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As Bipartisan Immigration Reform Plan Debuts, an Emphasis on Flexibility

May 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform plan survived its first day in Congress. Judy Woodruff reports on the battles and revisions underway. Jeffrey Brown talks to Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown and Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times about whether the gang of eight can bring undecided Republicans on board.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A comprehensive immigration reform plan faced its first major tests today in the U.S. Senate, and emerged pretty much intact.

For supporters, it was a hopeful beginning to the drive to pass the first major immigration overhaul bill since 1986. The front line of the immigration fight is now the Senate Judiciary Committee, where markup began this morning on a bipartisan bill.

Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin:

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: And this is our chance, in this hearing room, to write an immigration bill for the 21st century for America and its future. We have come together. We have reached an agreement, and we have compromised, and I think we have come up with a good work product.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Durbin is one of so-called Gang of Eight senators who wrote the bill. In its current form, it runs 844 pages, and would provide a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented people now in the country.

The process would take up to 13 years and applicants would have to pay a fine and pass a criminal background check, among other things. But the committee’s ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said the bill merely revisits past mistakes.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: It falls short of what I want to see in a strong immigration reform bill, so you will hear me say many times that we shouldn’t make the same mistake that we made in 1986. You will hear me say many times that we want to move ahead with a bill that does it right this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many of the 300 amendments submitted so far are focused on border security.

The bill already calls for improvements to the existing border fence and other so-called triggers, before the revamped immigration system takes effect. But Grassley said the triggers are too weak. He wanted the government to demonstrate effective control of the border for six months before considering anyone for legal status.

Texas Republican John Cornyn joined in.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: This is really a confidence-building measure, border security. And if it doesn’t work as advertised, then we will have failed in our responsibility. We will not have solved the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Opponents of that amendment said, in reality, such strict additions to the measure would mean denying citizenship indefinitely. In the end, Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both members of the Gang of Eight, voted with majority Democrats to defeat the amendment 12-6.

Democrats did accept other changes. One calls for 90 percent of would-be border jumpers to be stopped along the entire Mexican border, not just in high-risk sectors. But bill supporters said some of the amendments clearly amount to poison pills, including a proposal allowing members of same-sex couples to sponsor foreign spouses and others increasing visa eligibility for high-skilled workers.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: There are many who will want to kill this bill. I would ask my colleagues, if you don’t agree with everything — no one does — be constructive. We are open to changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The markup could go on for two weeks, shifting the Capitol’s focus away from gun control and fiscal battles, and putting the fight over immigration reform front and center.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we walk through some of the contentious debate now with two reporters following the action.

Carrie Budoff Brown is a White House and policy reporter for Politico. Brian Bennett covers homeland security for the Los Angeles Times.

But, Carrie, I want to start with you. Battle lines being drawn today? What jumped out at you about the first days, first day of this?

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN, Politico: Well, the first day here was clearly an attempt by the Gang of Eight, the bipartisan negotiating group, to show that they are willing, that it is willing to accept changes to the bill.

They agreed to some key changes on border security. That is an attempt to show that — again, that they want Republicans on board, that they are open to changes, and that this is a committee process that can be trusted.

However, at the end of the markup, I spoke with some of the Republican senators on the committee, and they said they are not persuaded, that these were minor changes, in their view, and there are still a lot of problems with the bill with the border security measures. So, even though there are bipartisan changes here, not enough, it looks like, at this point to bring undecided Republicans on board.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just to say with you for a moment, Carrie, how important is this amendment process to this particular reform motion? It seems — or I should say, why is it more important this time than usual?

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: Well, it’s so important because the last time the Senate took up immigration reform, it was in 2007 and the negotiating group literally came to a massive deal behind closed doors, and then put it on the Senate floor within hours, maybe a day or so, asking colleagues to vote for a very complex bill.

And senators felt cut out of the process and as if they didn’t have enough time to review the bill before supporting it. So Republicans were very clear with the group, the Gang of Eight this time, saying, you need to put this through regular order or you’re not going to get even consideration from us, unless the process is fair and open.

So that’s why in this case, just because of history on immigration, the way things were done several years ago, that’s why it’s so important to the process now that it’s conducted through regular order.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Brian Bennett, as we have seen, the main focus of the debate is over security at the border. Explain the key ways that are being raised here about how that should be dealt with.

BRIAN BENNETT, Los Angeles Times: Well, so the Gang of Eight came together and they put together what they consider to be a strong border security package that has to go into place within 10 years for any of the people who are legalized to be able to become citizens.

And that border security package would spend about $4.5 billion, maybe up to $6.5 billion on the border security. And it would increase surveillance and do a number of things like that.

So Republicans on the committee who oppose those measures have decided to try to change those. Sen. Grassley, for example, he wanted a change to be put into place where those border security measures would have to be met before anyone was legalized under the program.

JEFFREY BROWN: When they talk about effective control of that border, is that well-defined?

BRIAN BENNETT: It is and it isn’t.

The Border Patrol currently has its own definition of effective control. And they award percentages to different sectors. And the Border Patrol has said that in some of the high-risk sectors on the Southwest border, they have between 80 and 85 percent effective control. But that definition is up for debate.

And what Sen. Grassley successfully amended in the bill today was that he was able to have the effective control measure, which to — a goal was to achieve 90 percent effective control.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which means now patrolling more of the border, more areas?

BRIAN BENNETT: Yes. Instead of just three sectors, as was initially put into the deal, he successfully had the bill changed to include all sectors along the Southwest border.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Carrie, when you look at this going forward here, how set in place are — are senators? Where’s the real — we’re talking about specific issues, but what about senators? How — where’s the focus of the action?

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: Well, on the committee, if we’re just to look at this sort of narrow group right now, there’s Sen. Hatch, who is viewed as a persuadable senator, someone who could possibly come on board and support the bill out of committee.

The Democrats are very focused on him and wanting to get him, as well as, of course, the other two Republicans who are in the Gang of Eight who sit on the Judiciary Committee. So I think we’re going to see a lot of attention paid to Sen. Hatch. He voted with — with the Gang of Eight, with Democrats on some amendments, which show that he’s maybe a little bit more amenable to it.

And then after the committee, you really do have a group of about two dozen Republican senators who break into sort of different tiers in terms of their likelihood of supporting it that the Gang of Eight is focused on trying to get. They want 70-plus votes. And that means as many as two dozen senators could come on board if they lose a couple Democrats.

So there’s a big pool of people here, but a lot of the senators who are in the Senate right now didn’t vote or were not here in the Senate six years ago. So this is a new group and could be unpredictable.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Brian Bennett, you’re looking at all these other issues as well.

The issue really is how many of these amendments might peel away votes, right? What other key issues should we be looking for?

BRIAN BENNETT: Well, they’re looking closely at how many people qualify for this program, and there are efforts on the Republican side to try to reduce the number of people who would qualify for the legalization program.

And really the members of the Gang of Eight are going to try to beat that back and make sure it — enough people are able to qualify for the program. Other things to look at are how it defines the workplace visa programs.

So you have a requirement in the bill right now that lifts the number of high-skilled visas, but there are some senators that would like to have even more. And so that’s going to be a point of contention as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Carrie, we mentioned in Judy’s piece the same-sex couples matter that may come up. What else? What other things are you watching?

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: I’m certainly watching that, that amendment. If the chairman, Sen. Leahy, chooses to offer it, it could come up as early as Tuesday.

And Sen. Schumer, another leader of the Gang of Eight, told reporters today that that is the one amendment that keeps them up at night. So, clearly, he is worried. A lot of Democrats are worried about this, because they’re being caught between sort of two interests, one making the bill as bipartisan as possible and getting it through the Senate, and then gay rights advocates, who are very intent on trying to get this. And they believe it’s an equality issue. And they want it in there.

But they’re sort of being forced to choose, because Republicans are saying, if that amendment is attached, they will walk and that will certainly hobble immigration, if not derail it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will continue to follow.

Carrie Budoff Brown and Brian Bennett, thank you both very much.

BRIAN BENNETT: Happy to be here.

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: Thank you.