Senate Democrats appear dead set on moving comprehensive immigration reform this year even if it comes without GOP support, and they began laying the groundwork Wednesday for a Democrats-only alternative to a bipartisan deal.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) released a detailed summary of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The outline — which is based on negotiations between Schumer and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that collapsed earlier this month — would require a series of border security benchmarks to be met before broader reforms could be implemented.
The legislation includes tougher controls on the hiring of illegal immigrants, new work visa provisions and a pathway for citizenship.
Publicly, Democrats insisted Reid, Schumer and Menendez still are hoping to bring Republicans to the negotiating table this summer.
"This is a draft that reflects months of bipartisan work — it is not a Democrat-only bill but is intended to serve as an invitation to Republicans to look at it and sit down to solve problems with us," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.
Indeed, the trio of Democratic leaders — along with Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — met with the leaders of the nation's largest Latino community groups and immigration reform organizations to discuss the plan. According to a leadership aide, during the meeting Reid and other leaders were expected to ask activists to take the summary to meetings with Republicans in hopes of coaxing them into backing the bill.
[IMGCAP(1)]Privately, however, Democrats acknowledged that the summary is part of a broader contingency plan Reid, Schumer and Menendez are putting into place should Republicans not come into the fold.
One Democratic aide close to the issue noted that in the wake of Graham's abandoning negotiations, Schumer is continuing to meet with a handful of Senate Republican lawmakers — Scott Brown (Mass.), George LeMieux (Fla.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Dick Lugar (Ind.) — and that the summary is part of a dual-track alternative for moving forward.
According to this aide, under the new alternative, if Republicans continue to reject bipartisan overtures, Reid, Schumer and Menendez would look to have a handful of other top Democrats co-sponsor the legislation, including Durbin and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the second ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.
Menendez said his preference would be to have Republican support, but that it was more important to have a framework that can be publicly distributed so that Senators "can begin the debate and move the process forward." Menendez said he was still optimistic that the chamber could pass a bill this year, even though no Republicans have indicated they might support a bill.
"If we put our effort to it, and we have presidential leadership and we have Republicans who truly want to see immigration reform versus just talk about it, I think it's possible," Menendez said.
Senate Democrats' decision to move forward on their own drew applause from Hispanic lawmakers in the House, who have seized on Arizona's tough new state immigration law to ramp up the pressure for the Senate to act on a comprehensive bill this year.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) described the proposal Senate Democrats floated Wednesday as a "responsible bill that basically reflects the principles that were discussed with Lindsey Graham."
"It is the kind of bill that could be supported by any Republican who truly believes that the broken system should be fixed," Velázquez said. "So it is time to stop playing politics with this issue and do the work the American people sent us to do here."
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who heads the CHC's immigration task force, said a lack of GOP support should not preclude Senate Democrats from moving ahead on their own on the issue. "The Senate has a responsibility to lead," he said. "There is a majority of Democrats there."
Republicans, however, appear to have little interest in pursuing the bill. For instance, Lugar has repeatedly said he would only support smaller reforms and not a broad comprehensive bill. Likewise, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, introduced a stand-alone border security bill, while others denounced the summary as a political decision designed to help struggling Democrats, such as Reid, in their re-election campaigns.
"It's cynical to move a one-sided bill that they know can't pass just so they can get people out to vote. That's just pretty pathetic, really," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said.
Hatch also accused Democrats of abandoning bipartisanship.
"You can't just do stuff like that on something this important. Did you notice how everything is just partisan? ... What they do is they come up with a bill — like the health care bill — and say take it or leave it," he said.