Immigration is an issue that deeply divides the GOP conference, and Senator Mitch McConnell is in the middle. If he picks a side, it will anger the other one. And no matter what he does, his every action will be scrutinized. The issue weighs heavily in the minds of GOP primary voters. And since the tea-party wave of 2010 put the fear of a primary challenge into the heart of every Republican incumbent, even a master strategist such as McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2014, must factor it into his campaign approach.
The debate could also pit two of his party’s rising stars, Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, against each other. Both are probable presidential candidates, and Paul is a Kentuckian who bested a McConnell-backed rival in the 2010 GOP Senate primary.
Last week McConnell praised the work of the bipartisan group, led by Senators Rubio and Schumer, that produced the immigration legislation, and he announced that he would not vote to block the bill from coming to the Senate floor. “The Gang of Eight has made a substantial contribution to moving the issue forward,” he said. In a closed-door lunch with Republican colleagues prior to announcing his plans, McConnell said he thought voting to bring the bill to the floor was the best course.
GOP leadership is not formally whipping the vote, according to a senior GOP leadership aide. McConnell’s support on the procedural vote nonetheless alarms the bill’s opponents, who worry about what role he will play in the upcoming floor battle, which is sure to be bruising.
“Our goal is to change Senator McConnell’s mind on that,” says Rosemary Jenks, director of government affairs for NumbersUSA.
Opponents are weighing whether they can use the vote on the motion to proceed as a test of the immigration bill’s existing support, allowing activists to direct their resources toward Republicans who vote for the bill at this early stage.
Cornyn, who announced his support to bring the bill to the floor at the end of a long Judiciary Committee markup in which he voted against the underlying bill, said he thought the floor debate could improve the legislation. “I will vote yes on the motion to proceed and encourage my colleagues to do the same, because I think it’s important that we get on the bill on the floor and that we work together to try to improve it and make it as good as it can possibly be,” he said.
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, also said he would vote to bring the bill to the floor and even that he would have voted in committee if his was the deciding tally.
In his remarks praising the Gang of Eight, McConnell even went so far as to express his pleasure that none of the amendments offered in committee had substantially altered the bipartisan deal. “So far, I’m told that the Judiciary Committee has not in any fundamental way undone the agreement reached by the eight senators, so I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get a bill we can pass here in the Senate,” McConnell said.
Those amendments included conservative efforts to strengthen the bill’s enforcement provisions as well as a potential, but discarded, gay-rights amendment pushed by the Left.
But the day after praising the immigration bill, McConnell said he was still undecided about how he would vote on its merits.
In the 2007 immigration fight, conservatives, including then-senator Jim DeMint, praised McConnell for staying largely neutral in the debate. McConnell was doing a “great job,” DeMint told Roll Call at the time.
In fact, most of the flack McConnell took back then was from Democrats and liberal Republicans who wanted to see the 2007 version of comprehensive immigration reform passed.
Still, at a key moment in the debate, Majority Leader Harry Reid exposed a secret procedural deal he had struck with McConnell that roiled conservatives, because it revealed that McConnell had been working quietly behind the scenes. Broadly, the deal helped secure more amendments for the GOP, but the legislation’s opponents feared it gave the bill added momentum.
McConnell voted several times on motions to proceed to bring various versions of the bill to the floor, while opponents used them as rallying points, chipping away at its support. The 2007 bill finally collapsed when three consecutive cloture votes to end debate failed, with McConnell helping to kill it.
This time around, McConnell’s situation is more precarious, but the calls from the GOP party hierarchy to resolve the immigration issue are even louder. The lesson from the 2007 experience is that watching McConnell’s public actions may be misleading.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.