‘Gang of 8’ Soldiers On After Budget Split

Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:29pm

The Senate’s bipartisan immigration group insists that its deliberations were unaffected by a weekend vote that saw the eight senators working to produce a bill by early April split along party lines.

“There is no change from where we were,” said a Senate aide familiar with ongoing talks. The bill is still expected to be unveiled the week of April 8, when Congress returns from the spring recess, the aide said.

The Senate defeated an amendment to the budget resolution early on the morning of March 23 that would have put the Senate on record as opposing access to health care under Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act for undocumented immigrants who get a green card.

All Democrats — including “gang of eight” members Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado — opposed the amendment. They were joined by Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. All other Republican senators — including immigration negotiators Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona — supported the amendment.

The amendment, which failed 43-56, was offered by Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has been critical of the group of senators for drafting its bill behind closed doors.

“The result of today’s vote places immigration reform in jeopardy,” Sessions said in a release after the vote.

But the Senate aide disagreed on Monday. “Sen. Sessions is wrong,” the aide said, adding that the group is still working together and hopes to release a bill after the recess.

A spokesman for Rubio said the senator has long opposed the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants who gain legal status from getting federal benefits, and the bill the group is working on is expected to reflect that.

“Sen. Rubio has been talking about this principle of no federal benefits since January. He got the bipartisan Senate group to agree to it in their principles, and President [Barack] Obama himself accepted it during the Las Vegas speech [in late January]. He then later re- affirmed it during an interview … on Telemundo’s Enfoque,” the Rubio spokesman said. “The legislation that the bipartisan group is working on will make clear that undocumented immigrants given legal status will not receive any federal benefits.”

Rubio spoke about the issue when the group released its framework, which states that “current restrictions preventing non-immigrants from accessing federal public benefits will also apply to lawful probationary immigrants.”

The immigration group is working on providing a way for undocumented immigrants to earn legal status through a series of steps.

In an interview with Rush Limbaugh in late January, Rubio made the case against opening federal benefits to newly legalized immigrants — especially under the Affordable Care Act —because it would be cost-prohibitive.

“According to the law today, if you are a lawfully present in the country but you are not a green card holder, you do not qualify for any federal benefits. That’s existing law,” Rubio explained. “And so that means that the folks that are gonna be in this probationary stage that’s in our principles, they don’t qualify for any federal benefits except for one, Obamacare. Obamacare is the only federal benefit where you qualify for it, not because you have a green card but only because you’re lawfully present. That issue needs to be resolved because if Obamacare is available to 11 million people, it blows a hole in our budget and makes this bill undoable. That’s one of the major issues we’re gonna have to confront.”

The president urged Congress to pick up the pace Monday on passing a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

“I expect the debate to begin next month,” Obama said at a naturalization ceremony. “I want to sign that bill into law as soon as possible.”

“We are making progress, but we’ve got to finish the job because this issue is not new,” Obama said. “Everyone pretty much knows what’s broken; everybody knows how to fix it. We’ve all proposed solutions, and we’ve got a lot of white papers and, you know, studies, and we’ve just got, at this point, to work up the political courage to do what’s required to be done.”

The president’s message was meant to spur and encourage the Senate group’s efforts, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

“For the last couple of months we have seen a bipartisan group of [senators] working to try to come together around a compromise to reform our broken immigration system,” Earnest said, adding that the “White House has been engaged in the effort.

“We are encouraged that this bipartisan group seems to be making progress and we want to support that progress,” Earnest said. “We are going to reserve judgment on the final product until its presented, but we are pleased that they say they are on track to present it shortly after they return from their Easter recess.”