The immigration debate in Congress has tended to focus on reluctant Republicans who must be sold on the Gang of Eight’s reform proposal, while near-unanimous Democratic support for the bill has always been seen as a given. But should it be?
Well, yes. Probably.
Gang of Eight ringleader Chuck Schumer wants to pass the bill with 70 votes, he told The New Yorker recently, suggesting that all 54 Democrats (including like-minded independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King) would support him. The more votes in favor of the bill in the Senate, he said, the greater the political momentum, which would ultimately pressure the House into acting.
A number of GOP Senate sources think Schumer has what it takes to deliver his Democrats, potentially all of them, if that’s what’s needed to get to 70 votes. He is said to be eyeing a run for the Senate leadership after Harry Reid retires, and notwithstanding his reputation as a partisan cutthroat, he would like to add a large, bipartisan achievement to his résumé. At most, one aide says, two Democrats are likely to vote no — Senator Mark Pryor (Ark.), who is facing a difficult reelection in a conservative state, and Senator Joe Manchin (W.Va.).
Pryor and Manchin were the only two Democrats who voted for an amendment that would have mandated the completion of 700 miles of border fencing (already required under current law) before illegal immigrants receive legal status and citizenship. However, neither has been definitive about his position on the actual bill. Manchin, speaking textbook political doublespeak, told reporters on Tuesday: “We’re looking at every part of that bill. I think something has to be done on immigration, but securing the borders is very, very important to us.” Last week, Pryor said his “inclination” is to support the bill.
Conservative opponents of the Gang’s plan are slightly more optimistic and think there are a half-dozen Democrats or more who could be pushed to oppose the bill. For example, red-state Democrats such as Kay Hagan (N.C.), who is up for reelection in 2014, along with Jon Tester (Mont.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), could be susceptible to pressure from voters.
Recent polling commissioned by NumbersUSA, a group that favors “lower immigration levels” and opposes the Gang of Eight’s bill, suggests that voters in those states are unlikely to look favorably on the proposal. “There are going to be some Democrats who have to choose between loyalty to President Obama and getting reelected,” says Rosemary Jenks, the group’s director of government relations. “For some of them, a vote for this bill will mean they’re not coming back to Congress in 2015.”
Both Tester and Baucus voted against immigration-reform legislation in 2007; they also voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, as did Hagan and Donnelly. Hagan is currently under pressure from dozens of local law-enforcement officers to oppose the Gang of Eight legislation. She has also been cagey about her position. “I oppose amnesty, but a pathway to citizenship can take a lot of different forms,” Hagan told the Raleigh News & Observer in February.
Self-avowed socialist Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) is another possible no vote. “There is much in this bill that I support,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday, before blasting the legislation’s “huge expansion” of the federal guest-worker program, which he said would have a significant negative impact on young and low-skilled workers. A number of other union-friendly Democratic senators, such as Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio), opposed the 2007 immigration-reform bill on similar grounds but will almost certainty support the current bill, which is backed by the AFL-CIO.
However, turning more Democrats against the bill would likely require a consistent message and an offensive game plan from the GOP, which is sorely divided on the issue. One conservative aide complains that members of both parties who have yet to take a position on the Gang’s plan are less concerned about actually improving the bill than with “finding the political space to justify voting for it.”
“They’re not worried about the things that voters in their states are worried about,” the aide said. “They just want to get to yes.”
Whatever the final vote turns out to be in the Senate, the Democratic supporters will significantly outnumber the Republicans supporters — and maybe that’s what Chuck Schumer wanted all along.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.