The Gang of Eight’s critics have been predicting it for weeks: Negotiations would break down over disagreements on border security. Marco Rubio might threaten to walk. Immigration reform would hang in the balance. Then, suddenly, a group of senators would emerge from a back room with a deal that “fixes” the problem and saves the day. Reluctant Republicans would have political cover to vote yes; the bill would sail to passage.
And that’s exactly what is happening. (At this point, the bill’s passage is a mere formality.)
An amendment crafted by Senators Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R., N.D.), under the close supervision of Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and the White House, is being touted as the final compromise that will help Gang of Eight members achieve their goal of 70 votes for immigration reform.
Speaking from the Senate floor on Friday, Schumer praised the amendment’s authors for their “courageous” actions and for “doing the right thing for your country.” The bill’s proponents have “new wind in our sails” as they work to secure a “large bipartisan vote” that could pressure the House into action, he said.
At this point, the Gang of Eight has all the momentum on its side. The Corker-Hoeven amendment has given GOP senators enough border-security talking points to justify a vote for the bill, if they are so inclined. “A lot of Republicans clearly want to vote for something,” a senior GOP aide tells National Review Online. Red-state Democrats such as Joe Manchin (W. Va.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Begich (Alaska), and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) have signed on as co-sponsors. Conservative-host Bill O’Reilly has endorsed the bill. It is going to pass the Senate.
Here’s how it happened. Republicans wanted to make citizenship for illegal immigrants contingent on the government achieving a 90 percent apprehension rate for illegal crossings along the southern border. Democrats refused. “Dems were never ever going to allow anything that allows a verification process that they can’t control or just ignore,” says a GOP aide. So negotiators came to a logical compromise: Spend $30 billion. Call it a “border surge.”
On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the bill would reduce the federal deficit by about $200 billion over the next decade. So, just days after the Gang of Eight blasted an amendment from Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas), which called for an additional 5,000 border-patrol agents, as too expensive, negotiators decided to spend some of those projected savings.
The new amendment calls for doubling the number of border-patrol agents from 20,000 to 40,000, completing 700 miles of border fencing, and buying a bunch of hi-tech surveillance equipment such as drones and infrared sensors. Gang member Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said the amendment “practically militarizes the border,” and is the toughest possible solution “short of shooting everybody that comes across.” Schumer said it would “create a virtual human fence.”
But does it even make sense from a policy perspective? “I think it’s overkill,” said Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), another member of the Gang of Eight. Opponents of the bill may be inclined to agree.
The CBO estimated that the Gang’s initial legislation would only reduce illegal immigration by 25 percent over the next decade. “It didn’t get the job done on border security and that’s exactly why we’re adding that amendment,” Hoeven said Thursday.
But the CBO report specifically cites interior enforcement as a problem — individuals on temporary work visas who don’t leave when they’re supposed to, and aren’t properly accounted for. But the Corker-Hoeven amendment appears to do little to address this problem. It would establish a low-tech, biographic entry-exit verification system, as opposed to the advanced, biometric system that was approved (but never implemented) in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
It also calls for a pilot program “to explore the feasibility and effectiveness of notifying individuals who have traveled to the United States from a foreign nation that the terms of their admission to the United States are about to expire.” Chris Crane, who heads the union representing more than 7,500 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, has warned that the amendment “appears to completely neglect interior enforcement.”
The Gang of Eight opponents who predicted the events of the past several days say they plan to continue to fight against the bill, even if the final outcome is all but certain. In particular, conservative senators will attempt to identify and block political kickbacks that may have been inserted into the final draft of the bill in an effort to win votes. “We don’t do earmarks anymore, so that’s how we do things around here,” says a conservative GOP aide.
Some are concerned that Democrats, including President Obama, are less interested in passing immigration reform than they are using it as an issue to retake the House in 2014.
“The Obama administration is fighting a battle to lose,” Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) said on Thursday. “I think their conduct indicates that that’s in fact their desired #outcome…#to have the bill voted down in the House by insisting on provisions the House of Representatives is never going to adopt.”
“Schumer wants to make this as unpalatable as possible for Republicans in the House, so that they kill immigration reform,” the GOP aide says. “He wants it fail. This is about Democrats getting the House back in 2014 and doing everything they couldn’t get done in Obama’s first two years” when Democrats held a supermajority in Congress.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.