Marco Rubio and the so-called Gang of Eight’s push for comprehensive immigration reform has drawn sharp criticism from conservative skeptics. Perhaps foremost among them is Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), who has spent the last several weeks trying to galvanize his colleagues in an effort to warn of the potential pitfalls of an ill-conceived and under-scrutinized immigration bill.
Sessions is not alone. Senate veterans such as Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as conservative newcomers such as Mike Lee (R., Utah), among others, have expressed concerns about the process, time frame, and content of the Gang’s discussions.
Sessions has repeatedly raised concerns about what he calls “one of the biggest potential loopholes” in the Gang of Eight’s plan — what he sees as the Gang’s reluctance to affirm that newly legalized immigrants will not be given access to federal welfare programs, including Obamacare. “A primary concern related to a large-scale legalization of illegal immigrants is the long-term cost for taxpayers,” senators Sessions, Grassley, and Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) wrote in a letter to the Gang of Eight’s Republican members on Wednesday.
The trio cited the fact that last month, all four Democrats in the gang voted against a proposed budget amendment, which Sessions authored, that would have prevented illegal immigrants from becoming eligible for Obamacare once they were legalized under reform. At the time, Sessions said the vote signaled that immigration reform was “in jeopardy,” given that the Gang was split on an issue that could have serious budgetary implications.
Sessions and others have also raised concerns about the speed at which the Gang’s negotiations are proceeding. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) has promised to hold a single hearing on April 17 to review the Gang’s proposal.
“A single hearing scheduled so quickly to discuss legislative language that is not yet even available is completely inadequate for senators or the American people to get answers to the many questions a bill of this magnitude will inevitably raise,” Senator Lee said in a statement. Sessions argued that a failure to commit to a more open process was “tantamount to an admission that the bill is not workable and will not stand up to public scrutiny.”
These efforts have not been in vain. Sessions successfully pushed back against Leahy’s initially professed intention of rushing an immigration bill through committee, and to merely “consider” holding a hearing. He was joined by senators Grassley, Lee, Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), Ted Cruz (R., Texas), and minority whip John Cornyn (R., Texas), and ultimately by Rubio.
“I write to express my strong belief that the success of any major legislation depends on the acceptance and support of the American people,” the Florida Republican told Leahy in a letter late last month. “That support can only be earned through full and careful consideration of legislative language and an open process of amendments.”
With respect to amendments, some Republicans are concerned that the Gang will try to block them when a legislative proposal comes to the Senate floor for debate. Gang members from both parties recently told Politico they would seek to prohibit or limit major changes to their agreement, which could act as “poison pills” and sink the legislation. Rubio has not weighed in publicly, but sources close to the negotiations say he does not oppose an open amendment process and does not fear a “poison pill” scenario.
Thus far, Sessions’s efforts to raise concerns regarding the process surrounding the reform effort have been more successful than his efforts targeting the content of the bill. Sources close to the Gang of Eight have complained that Sessions is spreading “false” information about the group’s proposal regarding welfare eligibility for legalized immigration, a claim Sessions’s camp firmly denies.
An aide close to the Judiciary Committee points out that, beyond the Gang of Eight members, more lawmakers have expressed skepticism of the reform effort than have defended it. “We believe that we speak for and represent the interests of the majority of Americans who don’t have a voice in this process,” the aide says. “This is just the beginning of a very long process, and there’s a lot of overconfidence on the side of those who expect swift passage of a far-reaching, 1,500-page bill.”
For the moment, most Republicans have adopted a “wait and see” approach and are reluctant to weigh in until the Gang produces a plan, sources say. A planned briefing on the Gang’s efforts at a Republican luncheon on Wednesday was reportedly scrapped in order to discuss party strategy on gun control.
As lawmakers await a plan, outside groups are working behind the scenes, with organizations such as Americans for Tax Reform and the Chamber of Commerce arguing in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, and groups such as the Heritage Foundation raising concerns about the price tag of reform. So as contentious as the immigration debate has been already, it is likely just getting started.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.