Blown Immigration Deadlines by ‘Gang of Eight’ Testing Senate Nerves

Posted April 10, 2013 at 4:33pm

The bipartisan Senate group working on immigration legislation blew yet another deadline Wednesday when Republican members did not deliver an anticipated briefing to their colleagues during a GOP Steering Committee lunch meeting. Members of the group insisted afterward that they are on track to deliver a bill this week or next.

“We’re really close,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the group, “but probably not this week.”

The so-called “gang of eight” has been unwilling to put a firm time frame on finishing the bill because it is complicated with many elements, and finding agreement and drafting it into legislation is a time-consuming process. But their assurances did not placate conservative GOP senators who are growing impatient.

Their irritation was compounded when Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., scheduled a hearing for April 17 on the yet-to-be-introduced measure. Leahy also said a May 6 markup is “realistic.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said more hearings would be needed to assess the “complex” questions sure to be raised by the legislation.

“That’s not realistic if we’re going to have a serious evaluation of the issues involving immigration,” he said.

Sessions said members of the immigration group “did not seem to be interested” in holding their lunch briefing. “I did not get the impression that there was any interest in pushing to get that done,” he said. “The impression I got was that they hoped to do it next week.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, assailed Leahy for scheduling only one hearing.

“A single hearing scheduled so quickly to discuss legislative language that is not yet even available is completely inadequate for senators or the American people to get answers to the many questions a bill of this magnitude will inevitably raise,” Lee said in a statement. “We could not possibly have a meaningful hearing with a substantive discussion of what will surely be over 1,000 pages of provisions we haven’t even yet seen.”

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was sanguine when asked about the postponed immigration discussion. Most of Wednesday’s lunch meeting was devoted to the gun-related legislation that is pending on the Senate floor.

“They’ll brief us,” Alexander said. “We have a cloture vote tomorrow [on gun legislation]. There’s only a limited amount of time.”

Leahy, who met with members of the Senate group Tuesday, was optimistic that the immigration legislation would be released in time for next week’s hearing.

“They seem confident and they’ve done such great work, both the Republicans and Democrats,” Leahy said. “I’m very impressed with what they’ve done.”

As the Republican members of the Senate gang of eight were attending their lunch, their Democratic counterparts were speaking with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, who chairs the CHC, sounded optimistic after the meeting.

“For the first time in decades, we have a real opportunity to change our broken immigration laws,” Hinojosa said. “We applaud all members of the gang of eight for understanding the importance of this issue, not just for the Hispanic community but for all Americans, and for their sense of urgency as they expedite the process of getting this critical reform passed in both chambers.”

Immigration advocates have also been keeping the heat on lawmakers. On Wednesday, thousands rallied outside the Capitol to call on Congress to move quickly to grant citizenship to the 11 million people living in the country illegally.

Speaking to the crowd, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., sought to reassure that the bill is coming soon.

“The gang of eight senators, of which I am one, have come to an agreement on all the major issues,” Menendez said. “We are writing the bill as we speak, and it will be a strong foundation that we believe can be used at the Judiciary Committee starting next week, then move to the Senate.”

Further Details Emerge

The bill would put undocumented immigrants on a 10-year path to a green card, which could ultimately lead to citizenship, according to a Democratic aide.

The path would be contingent on stopping 90 percent of attempts to cross the border in high-risk areas, the aide said, confirming earlier reports. It would also be contingent on putting in place a workplace verification program known as E-Verify and on improving the entry and exit monitoring system. Right now, roughly 40 percent of people living in the country illegally entered lawfully but overstayed their visas.

The aide said those enforcement and border security measures are not a “trigger” to putting people on a path to citizenship but are instead a “goal,” suggesting that they would not be used to deny people the chance to become Americans.

Earlier Wednesday, Graham said that border and interior security measures would be central to the legislation.

“We’ve spent $18 billion on the border since 2006. It’s more secure than it was,” he said. “There are things we’re going to do on the border to make it more secure but interior enforcement’s the key. People come for jobs.”

E-Verify, Graham added, “is an absolute must.”