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Menendez: Passing immigration bill has ‘herculean’ challenges

Democrats would need to find 10 Republican supporters to clear 60-vote threshold

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., speaks at a press conference in December.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., speaks at a press conference in December. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the lead sponsor of President Joe Biden’s immigration overhaul bill, said Thursday he’s willing to negotiate with Republicans to reach the threshold necessary to pass the measure in the Senate.

“I’m under no illusions. I know from my time in the ‘Gang of Eight’ that passing immigration reform through the Senate particularly is a herculean task,” he said.

Menendez was referring to the bipartisan group of senators who in 2013 successfully pushed major immigration legislation through the chamber only to see the measure die in the Republican-controlled House.

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“We have our work cut out for us to make the case for immigration reform, not just for immigrants and their families, but to Americans of all walks of life. It’s time to put political capital, and every other capital on the table to make this happen,” Menendez said during a conference call Thursday with businesses and immigration organizations.

Democrats would need to find at least 10 Republicans, and no defections from their party, for the measure to reach the 60 filibuster-proof vote threshold in the 50-50 split Senate.

Menendez, who did not say when he plans to officially introduce the bill, told CQ Roll Call that he will reach out to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the two GOP Gang of Eight members left in the Senate. The other one, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, has already called the proposal a “non-starter.”

“Before we deal with immigration we need to deal with COVID, make sure everyone has the chance to find a good job, and confront the threat from China,” Rubio said in a statement Wednesday. “America should always welcome immigrants who want to become Americans. But we need laws that decide who and how many people can come here, and those laws must be followed and enforced.”

Biden’s immigration bill includes measures that would pave a pathway to temporary legal status and, ultimately, citizenship, for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, according to a White House outline of the measure. The legislation also calls for hiring more immigration judges to mitigate a backlog of 1.3 million cases and would raise the per-country caps for visas used by U.S. citizens and green card holders to bring over family members from abroad.

In addition, the bill would make it easier for foreign graduate students in STEM-related fields to stay in the U.S. and provide permanent residency to immigrants enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects from deportation and grants work authorization to individuals brought as children to this country unlawfully by their parents.

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Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a fellow Gang of Eight member who is likely to become leader of the Judiciary Committee, the panel with jurisdiction over immigration, told reporters Thursday that he has reached out to half a dozen Republicans about the legislation.

“They have been open to the conversation. We haven’t agreed on anything, but they’ve been open to it, and that’s what it’s going to take,” he said.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who is poised to become the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, called Biden’s immigration proposal unrealistic and too sweeping to pass the Senate.

“I think they would have a good chance of getting something done on DACA, even citizenship for DACA people. Legalizing 11 million people without securing the border… I don’t think it’s going to go over very well,” he said during a press call Thursday.

Biden has made immigration overhaul a key priority for his first year in office. In addition to the bill, he signed a stack of executive orders Wednesday evening to undo many of Donald Trump’s signature immigration policies, including rescinding the travel ban against people from predominantly Muslim nations and halting construction on the southern border wall.

For years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have failed to pass immigration measures to provide legal protections to DACA recipients, sometimes known as Dreamers, and other immigrants. Menendez said that now that Democrats control both the House and, much more narrowly, the Senate, passing an immigration bill appears to be more realistic.

The New Jersey lawmaker said compromise will be key, and that he is open to feedback.

“We will not stray far apart from our principles and the essence of the legislation… But at the end of the day, they have to be open to some negotiation,” he said.

“I have an open door and an open mind and an open hand to anyone who wants to engage in legitimate reform, and I have begun some of those conversations.”