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Will ‘Monkey Wrenches’ Stall Immigration?

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may have said something prescient when he deviated from his prepared remarks on immigration Friday morning.

The Nevada Democrat’s prepared remarks said, “I have committed to as open an amendment process as possible,” to which he added on the floor, “I don’t want to say totally open because sometimes with the procedures we have here, as with the farm bill, people throw monkey wrenches into things here and we’re not able to do as we wanted to do.”

That’s a candid recognition that the best-made plans often founder in the Senate. The farm bill is on track to pass the night of June 10, with many related amendments left by the wayside because, it seems, Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on how to process them.

Only one amendment remains pending before the Senate is scheduled to hold the vote to pass the five-year farm policy bill. While Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., worked for days to pursue an agreement to jettison the need for a debate-limiting cloture vote, it did not take place.

For instance, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wanted to offer an amendment to repeal the Department of Agriculture’s catfish inspection program that’s important to the domestic catfish business in states such as Cochran’s Mississippi, but that many others consider wasteful. Senators actually adopted the catfish amendment on the floor last Congress, but it isn’t expected to see a vote this year.

There’s also the matter of legalizing the production of industrial hemp. That proposal is backed by, among others, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his home-state colleague Rand Paul, but it faced opposition from law enforcement. Amendment sponsor Ron Wyden was candid in explaining the problem.

“While support is growing, we have some significant challenges right now. Between the generational misconceptions about hemp within the Congress, continued opposition from the Drug Enforcement Agency, and no clear opportunity to vote on further farm bill amendments, the time is not yet ripe for industrial hemp,” the Oregon Democrat said.

Reid has pledged an open process on the immigration bill, which he says will be finished before senators depart for the Fourth of July recess.

Still, rumored amendments are already piling up, particularly on the Republican side, and the farm bill serves as a stark reminder of how any one senator can cause a problem by objecting to vote agreements until their own amendments get into the queue.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., placed a hold that lasted several days on an amendment from other senators to delay what would have effectively amounted to increases in flood insurance premiums for many homeowners. Louisiana Democrat Mary L. Landrieu responded by holding up all other amendments on the other side of the aisle.

“If I have to stay on the floor until the end of the week, I am going to stay here, but I am going to object to any Republican amendment until we get … a vote,” Landrieu said during the debate.

On immigration, senators such as Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, have indicated that if the “gang of eight” senators want their votes, their amendments need to be adopted. Hatch wants to strengthen enforcement of the collection of back taxes and make benefit changes.

And while Reid and McCain both expressed confidence recently that the bill will get the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster and pass the Senate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said last week that the bill will struggle to pass the Senate and will fail in the House unless border security provisions are strengthened.

“We will find out soon enough,” Rubio said. “I am pretty confident I am right.”

And then there’s the case of senators dead-set against the immigration bill who will be offering numerous amendments aimed at bogging it down and exposing what they consider to be flaws. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, declared the bill unfixable and vowed to fight it, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Friday declared it the product of a back-room deal.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., meanwhile, complained that opponents were forcing a cloture vote on June 11 just to get to the bill.

“In order for all senators to be able to file amendments and work on this bill, the Senate first needs to proceed to the bill,” Leahy said Friday. “I had hoped that what has become all too typical obstruction would not infect these proceedings.”

Humberto Sanchez and Philip Brasher contributed to this report.

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