WASHINGTON – Supporters and opponents of sweeping immigration legislation faced off Thursday as a Senate committee began considering hundreds of amendments that could improve the bill's chances of eventual passage through Congress, or doom it to failure.
In opening remarks in the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, the panel's senior Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, charged that the landmark bill backed by President Barack Obama does little more than repeat mistakes of the past.
"It falls short of what I want to see in a strong immigration reform bill, so you will hear me say many times that we shouldn't make the same mistakes that we made in 1986," the last time Congress passed a major immigration overhaul bill, Grassley said. "You'll hear me say many times that we ought to move ahead with a bill that does it right this time."
A lead author of the bill, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, countered that the legislation represents the country's best hope for immigration reform and a chance to break through the partisanship that's riven Congress and the country.
"We have come up with a fair bill where no one gets everything they want, but at the end of the day, it will mean dramatic improvement for the American economy, the American people, and will make our immigration policy much more in sync with what is good for jobs and America," Schumer said.
The 844-page legislation crafted in months of closed-door negotiations by four Democratic and four Republican senators would toughen border security, remake legal immigration to allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check their workers' legal status, and create a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already in the U.S. illegally.
Senators on the Judiciary Committee have filed some 300 amendments on a wide range of issues including border security and workplace enforcement, along with Democratic-authored measures to make the legislation more welcoming to immigrant families.
A focus throughout the committee session, expected to last about two weeks, will be on whether the four committee members among the so-called Gang of Eight senators who authored the legislation can stick together to protect against efforts to chip away at the bill's core provisions.
In addition to Schumer, those lawmakers are Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Although the bill allows citizenship to go forward only after certain border security goals have been met, those "triggers" haven't proven convincing enough for many GOP lawmakers. Amendments expected to be offered Thursday were likely to focus on that issue, according to the schedule laid out by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Even one of the bill's authors, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has said border measures need to be stronger, so some changes are likely to be accepted as the authors work to show they are open to alterations that could attract additional support for the bill.
But measures offered by some Republican senators would dramatically change the bill's delicately crafted compromises in a way its authors are unlikely to accept.
For example, Grassley has filed an amendment to prohibit anyone from obtaining legal status until the Homeland Security Department has maintained "effective control" of the border for six months — a potentially arduous standard to reach, depending upon how it is defined.
Rubio conceded in a broadcast interview Thursday that some amendments could be seen as attempts to thwart the legislation, but said he thought most were intended to refine and improve it, saying "that's the way the process is supposed to work."
He called the work of the Gang of Eight "an excellent starting point" and said there is overwhelming support among the American people, including social conservatives, for immigration changes as long as they tighten border security. Rubio said in an interview on "CBS This Morning" that the public wants legislation that would ensure that "this illegal immigration wave doesn't happen again."