WASHINGTON – One of Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s greatest legislative triumphs – bipartisan passage of an immigration bill that offers a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented aliens while dramatically boosting border security – may yet end in defeat thanks to lawmakers such as Reps. Tom Reed and Chris Collins.
The Senate passed the immigration bill last week by a 68-32 margin, and even Republicans acknowledge that Schumer, a New York Democrat who’s been touting the economic benefits of immigration reform for years, was a key driving force behind it.
“Schumer’s been incredible,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who worked with Schumer on the bill, recently told the Wall Street Journal. “He’s a worthy successor to Ted Kennedy, and that’s saying a lot.”
But now the immigration bill moves on to the House, where driving forces often meet a brick wall of conservative Republican opposition – personified, in Western New York and on this issue, by Reed and Collins.
“I believe, looking at the Senate bill, that this is amnesty,” said Reed, of Corning. “And I don’t support amnesty. … It’s not fair to the people who came here legally to see the Senate try to push amnesty across the spectrum for those who came here illegally.”
Such sentiments, common among House Republicans nationwide who may fear that backing the bill will prompt a primary challenge from the right in the 2014 elections, were just the sort Schumer had to overcome in winning 14 Republican votes for the immigration package in the Senate.
And Schumer promises to keep pressing for passage of the bill on the House side, in part by dealing with the “amnesty” argument head-on.
“When you have to wait 10 years, when you have to admit wrongdoing, pay a significant fine, go back to the line, work, stay clear of the law and learn English, no one would call that amnesty in another situation,” Schumer said in an interview earlier this week.
No matter what you call it, the path to citizenship laid out in the immigration bill is by no means an easy one. Undocumented alien adults would have to register for “registered provisional immigrant status,” pay a $500 fine and wait 10 years before even applying for citizenship. By the time they actually become citizens, it could be as long as 13½ years.
The “Gang of Eight” senators who have been working on the immigration issue – assembled by Schumer and Graham – laid out that path to citizenship earlier this year, but it was just one of many steps those senators took to build the bipartisan coalition that passed the bill.
And all along the way, Schumer – long seen by many Republicans as nothing but a camera-ready liberal lion – proved to be the Democratic deal-maker.
One key moment came on Good Friday, when Schumer convened a conference call with Thomas J. Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
Together with their staffs, the three men resolved an issue that had sunk earlier attempts at immigration reform, hammering out a guest worker program for low-skilled, year-round temporary workers that proved to be acceptable to both business and labor.
Later, and similarly, Schumer brokered a deal with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to increase the number of visas for high-tech workers – a move that likely won Hatch’s vote for final passage.
In striking such compromises, Schumer emphasized that a deal would be far better than the immigration status quo, “where we turn away people who will create jobs and let people cross the border who take away American jobs,” the senator said.
“That was my pitch: that the status quo was so awful that everyone should give a little to improve their own situation, even if they didn’t get everything they want,” Schumer said.
Still, crafting a bill that would win widespread support was by no means easy.
In fact, less than two weeks before the Senate passed the bill, it nearly died.
Republicans were growing increasingly worried that the bill didn’t include strong enough measures to protect the southern border, and Schumer – who counted only 60 votes for the measure at the time – feared that the number of yea votes might actually fall rather than rise.
But then, a bit of good luck led to some last-minute legislating that salvaged the bill.
On June 18, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Senate immigration bill would grow the economy by 3.3 percent while whittling the federal deficit by $197 billion over the next decade.
Armed with an unexpected cash windfall, Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota – working with Schumer behind the scenes – developed the idea of a “border surge” to win the support of senators worried about border security. The surge would add 20,000 agents and 700 miles of fencing at the Mexican border while spending $3.2 billion on drones and other high-tech equipment aimed at tracking down people who enter the U.S. illegally.
“Corker said: ‘It’s a great idea, let’s do it,’ ” Schumer said of the surge. “I tested it out on (Senator) Marco Rubio in the gym, and he liked it.”
The sign-off from Rubio, a Florida Republican who’s a key player in the Gang of Eight and a likely candidate for president in 2016, was just the start. Thanks to the surge, the number of Republicans backing the bill started swelling – and senators from both parties took to the floor to praise both the bill and the New York senator who was shepherding it to passage.
Schumer “played such an important and valuable leadership role,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
“None of this would have been possible without Chuck Schumer,” added Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat and, like McCain, a member of the Gang of Eight.
Senate staffers privately say Schumer’s work with on the immigration bill could pay off for him personally, bolstering his likely bid for Democratic majority leader when Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada eventually steps down.
More immediately, though, the Gang of Eight’s handiwork faces a gang of recalcitrant Republicans in the House.
Many House Republicans are unsure about the border surge, saying they would want to make sure it would be effective before offering anything close to legal status to the nation’s illegal immigrants.
“Before we get to that issue, we have to make sure that our borders and our immigration system work, and are firm and protected,” said Reed, the GOP congressman from Corning. “Once you have that conversation, then you can move to the next conversation, which is what do we do about the 11 million who are here.”
That next conversation shouldn’t even include the word “citizenship,” say Republicans such as Reed and Collins.
“The issue I think that’s somewhat overriding is the issue of citizenship for adults who, when they first came to this country – which is founded in the rule of law – broke the law,” said Collins, of Clarence.
House Republicans prefer an alternative where undocumented aliens are given a chance at legal status if they work in this country, but without the benefits of full citizenship.
“We’re actually recognizing the 11 million immigrants who shouldn’t be here but who are, and we are giving them a way to stay permanently,” Collins said. “I think that’s quite a compromise.”
House Republicans would create that new legal status for undocumented aliens in one of several bills they’re offering up as they deal with the immigration issue in piecemeal fashion, in contrast to the Senate’s comprehensive approach.
“The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said recently. “For any legislation … it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our (Republican) members.”
That vow bodes ill for the Senate immigration bill, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
“It’s not going to go anywhere because of what’s going on in the House,” where several dozen conservatives tend to thwart any attempt at compromise, said Higgins, who supports the immigration bill, saying it would be a boon to the economy.
Nevertheless, Schumer thinks that over time, Boehner will back away from his vow and allow the Senate immigration bill to come up for a vote, where it could pass with the votes of an unusual coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.
For one thing, three times in the past year, Boehner has broken his vow to not take up legislation unless a majority of House Republicans support it. Each time, the bill passed – thanks to support from an unusual coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Besides, Schumer said, Boehner will be under huge pressure to pass the Senate immigration bill.
“The national Republican leadership knows that if they don’t get a bill done, it’s going to hurt them as a party for a generation,” given the rapid increase in the Hispanic population, Schumer said.
What’s more, traditional GOP allies such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and evangelical groups are backing the bill, as is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
And while it’s unusual for a senator to have much influence on a House debate, Schumer is promising to do what he can on the other side of Capitol Hill to make sure the immigration bill becomes law.
“My role is to summon all these forces that we have (in support of the bill) and to guide them so they’re used effectively,” said Schumer, who is nothing if not confident.
“I believe you will see the House pass the Senate bill this year,” he added.