Senate Ready for Amendments and Floor Debate on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

    11 June 2013

    At the end of last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) initiated procedural actions to bring the comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744), to the Senate floor. On June 6, he filed cloture on the motion to proceed to debate. Debate was initiated by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a staunch opponent of the bill, on June 7 and continued today with remarks by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). A vote on cloture is expected this afternoon.  Majority Leader Reid plans to allow an open amendment process and up to three weeks of debate, with a likely final vote the week of June 24. 

    While Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated he will not block debate on S. 744, it is still unclear whether the bipartisan Gang of Eight has garnered a filibuster-proof 60 votes.  The Gang of Eight is actively negotiating amendments with senators to gain their votes. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have both mentioned that the bill still has room for improvement and that constructive amendments will be welcomed by the Gang of Eight.  Yesterday, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) announced that she would support the bill, a victory for the Gang of Eight’s lobbying efforts. They also worked long hours to gain Senator Orrin Hatch’s (R-UT) support to vote the bill out of the Judiciary Committee in exchange for accepting his amendments to the H-1B visa provisions. However, Senator Hatch was clear that his support on the floor was not guaranteed unless his four amendments on taxation provisions are adopted before a final vote.  No deal has been announced on these provisions, but they remain part of the behind the scenes push to move immigration reform through the Senate.

    Prepositioning for floor amendments continued last week with an announcement by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) of his plans to introduce a border security amendment to ensure that undocumented immigrants are not legalized before operational control is assumed over the Southern border.  While the call for tighter border security is not new, it will put pressure the Gang of Eight to hold their agreement together. Already, cracks in the Gang are evident with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) repeatedly stating that he cannot vote for the bill in its current form until border security is strengthened. Senator Schumer was quick to publicly note that Senator Rubio is still a supporter of the bill.  While Senator Cornyn’s amendment may help assure some Republican senators, it may simultaneously reduce support from Democrats if they see the amendment as overly restrictive on the legalization process; Majority Leader Reid has called the Cornyn amendment a “poison pill.” In addition, the critical E-Verify system that will ensure that jobs do not go to people unlawfully in the U.S. is likely to face amendments from several directions.  Some, like Senators Sessions and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have criticized its 5-year phase-in, and Grassley’s committee amendment mandating operation of the system in 18 months may resurface on the floor. Other senators have expressed interest in improving the enforcement mechanisms of the program or its systemic operations. 

    In the House, the bipartisan Gang of Eight has now become a Gang of Seven. Representative Raul Labrador (R-ID) dropped out of the Gang due to disagreement over whether undocumented immigrants would be eligible for subsidized health care, or whether they could be allowed to purchase it under the Affordable Care Act exchanges.  The House Gang of Eight again reported that they have reached a deal “in principle” on all key aspects of a comprehensive bill and that they are completing the final drafting.  Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) is vocal in Democratic opposition to requiring the undocumented to purchase private insurance at unaffordable market rates.  In response, Representative Labrador has pledged to draft his own bill. His departure from the Gang could reduce Republican support for the final bipartisan product, especially among newer and more conservative members.

    Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) indicated that all immigration bills will proceed through the Judiciary Committee, and he warned that the House will not simply take up a bill passed in the Senate.  House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) continues to address individual aspects of the immigration system via piecemeal bills. This week the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the interior enforcement language introduced by Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC), H.R. 2278, the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (SAFE Act). The Committee may soon hold a hearing on the Supporting Knowledge-based Immigrants & Lifting Levels of STEM Visas Act (SKILLS Act, H.R. 2131), relating to high skilled visas, which Chairman Goodlatte co-sponsored with committee member Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA).  Indicators are that a markup and floor passage of either a set of Republican bills, or the bipartisan Gang of Seven bill, may still occur in the House before the August recess.