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Budget GOP Wonders About Sessions’ Priority

Sen. Jeff Sessions is running a one-man war against a comprehensive immigration overhaul, and it’s irking some of his Budget Committee colleagues.

Some close to the committee have complained that Sessions, a Republican from Alabama and the ranking member on the Budget panel, has been spending most of his time — and his media platform — attacking the immigration bill proposed by a bipartisan group of eight senators, including fellow Budget member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

During the recess week alone, Sessions’ office sent more than 30 press emails against the bipartisan framework. He held a conference call with reporters Friday to talk about immigration.

Some members are frustrated that he speaks about the issue in his capacity as ranking member on Budget, yet he hasn’t made significant moves to debate the issue in committee, according to multiple sources. He has mostly stopped sending press releases from Senate Budget email accounts after complaints from other members. But the Senate Budget Committee has not scheduled a hearing on immigration, even though the Senate Judiciary Committee, Commerce Committee and the Joint Economic Committee have.

“We tried to look at the budget ramifications of it, but Chairman [Patty] Murray has not called a hearing on it,” Sessions said on the call, after lamenting the lack of debate on the legislation.

“Political consultants have planned this whole thing out and are trying to push it through without full discussion of the details,” Sessions said.

In January, Sessions sent a wish list of 28 hearings for 2013 to Murray — including one on immigration — but a Democratic aide says the majority Budget staff hasn’t heard from Sessions about scheduling any hearings since then. The aide added that Sessions has not specifically requested or discussed a hearing on immigration.

Sessions said the hearings that have been held by other committees weren’t sufficient because they only served to “go through the motions of discussing the bill.”

One hearing in particular, a Judiciary session that featured more than 20 witnesses, was held on a Monday, “so many members were not in town,” Sessions said.

Sessions spokesman Stephen Miller said the allegations against Sessions are “grossly inaccurate”: “First, Ranking Member Sessions has been tirelessly active on budget issues. Second, we’ve conducted dutiful oversight on all aspects of welfare policy and have sent a request to CBO on the impacts of the current immigration proposal. Third, Sessions is a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, which is considering and voting on the immigration bill.” (Because of an email server problem, CQ Roll Call was unable to include Miller’s statement in the print edition.)

Sessions has long been a conservative stalwart, but he’s garnered less attention than tea-party-favored newcomers, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky or Ted Cruz of Texas. And even Paul has acknowledged the need for some changes to the current immigration system.

But Paul and Cruz, along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — a member of the immigration “gang of eight” with tea party credentials — have national ambitions and considerations outside their states.

Sessions, who is up for re-election in 2014, has no such incentive.

“Rand Paul is playing to a national audience. Jeff Sessions is playing to Alabama,” one Senate Republican source said. “There’s the raw politics of it; for some of those guys, 2007 was the high-water mark when they brought down the immigration bill.”

When asked in the media call, Sessions said he plans to introduce amendments to the legislation but said the bill is “a disaster” and provided no possible changes that could lead to his support. There have been some grumblings, from people around those who either back the bill or would like to learn more about it, that there hasn’t been equal time within the committee to discuss the immigration overhaul or its potential effects on the budget, according to three sources.

But many are shrugging their shoulders, knowing there’s not much they can do to change the nature of the debate within the panel with Sessions at the helm.

Meanwhile, Sessions is the only top Budget member in the House or Senate who is not speaking at the annual Peter G. Peterson Foundation summit, to be held May 7 in Washington, where many of the nation’s top leaders will convene to discuss deficit reduction.

Murray is a scheduled speaker, as is House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. Senate Republicans instead will be represented at the event by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

It’s unclear whether an invitation was extended to Sessions, and a spokesman for the foundation and event did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Portman, a former Office of Management and Budget director under President George W. Bush, has a previous relationship with Peterson and often speaks to groups and to the media on budget issues.

Murray and Ryan have been in negotiations for weeks on a potential conference committee to merge the House and Senate budgets. The Senate marked up and approved its first budget in four years in March, in part because of years’ worth of Republican pressure to do so. Though Murray and Ryan have issued a joint statement on the matter, an official statement on the issue of a conference process could not be found either on the GOP Budget Committee website or in a CQ Roll Call search of past press releases emailed to reporters but not posted online.

In the Budget Committee’s latest hearing, on President Barack Obama’s budget, other GOP members mentioned a conference but Sessions did not. For example, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he supported a conference committee as “regular order.”

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered a unanimous consent agreement to convene a budget conference, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., objected on the behalf of Sessions, who said he had a conflict and could not do so himself.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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