Senate Immigration Bill Is Back

The immigration bill is back for consideration this week in the Senate, but passage — or even a final vote, for that matter — is no sure bet.

After collapsing two weeks ago on the floor, the bill will make an unusual comeback Tuesday when senators cast a crucial procedural vote to reopen debate, setting the stage for the legislative equivalent of a poker game.

Each side wants to tweak the bill with amendments. Some of the two dozen or so up for debate are described as deal killers; others could simply beset the measure with a high-grade fever. 

The issue is so unpredictable that nobody really knows which senators are bluffing, or what might happen in the end.

“Each day, we wake up and find a way to run through the raindrops,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, explaining his unscientific survival strategy.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that critics like him would “use every effort to slow this process down and continue to hold up the bill and read it to the American people.”

The measure should garner the 60 votes necessary to restart debate Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Friday. Beyond that, he said, the bill's fate is unclear.

A delicately crafted compromise

In the last week alone, two Republican senators who helped negotiate the comprehensive compromise — Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both of Georgia — announced that they would oppose Tuesday’s cloture motion. A third, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), followed suit. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) supported the immigration bill last year, but says he’s undecided this time.

The measure is a delicately crafted compromise between Republican and Democratic senators, and the White House.

In what would be the most massive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in decades, the bill sets up a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, tightens border security, creates a guest worker program and establishes a system by which employers must verify the legal status of workers.

Naturally, there is something about each aspect of the bill that many senators want changed.

Then there’s Hugh Hewitt.

The California-based radio talk show host persuaded Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the chief Republican negotiator on the bill, to fold one of Hewitt’s ideas into an amendment that tightens enforcement measures.

On Hewitt’s suggestion, Kyl is now proposing that immigrants seeking entry into the United States from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism get a higher level of scrutiny.

The Hewitt revision is just the beginning.

Broaden support or collapse

Democrats and Republicans each plan to offer about a dozen amendments, any of which could broaden support for the bill, or cause it to collapse again.

Pro-immigrant interest groups have voiced concern about many of the GOP-proposed changes. One from Hutchison would require immigrants to return to their home country before receiving legal status. Another from Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) would allow local law enforcement to inquire about an individual’s immigration status if they have probable cause.

“Most of them are deal killers,” Sharry said of the Republican amendments.

For their part, Republicans dislike Democratic attempts to reverse the bill’s shift away from family-based migration.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) wants to expand the number of visas awarded annually to parents of U.S. citizens from 40,000 to 90,000. And Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) would add more points to the proposed merit-based visa system for applicants who have family members already living in the U.S.

“It is time for those who espouse values and the strength of families and family values &helip; to put up their votes on this matter,” Menendez said Friday.

'We will pass the bill'

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the chief Democratic negotiator of the bill, vowed Sunday on ABC that “we will pass the bill." 

But given the slate of amendments, there’s no telling what will happen between now and then.

“The Senate operates on bluff,” said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute who studies immigration.

“It is a game of bluff and counter-bluffs and ultimatum.”