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Sen. Orrin G. Hatch wants to vote for comprehensive immigration legislation, but he has a few conditions first.
The Utah Republican’s vote “can be won if they’ll pay attention to what I am doing,” Hatch told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday.
Hatch could be a bellwether for winning GOP support on the Senate floor, according to immigration overhaul supporters.
Getting Hatch’s vote for passage of the bill could be invaluable, said Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the bipartisan “gang of eight” members who authored the bill currently under review by the Judiciary Committee.
“I think it would be critical to getting him on board,” the Florida Republican said. “I think he is someone that people around here trust and admire tremendously and I think it would be a huge asset. I think it would be one of the biggest steps forward toward passage that we can achieve.”
The Judiciary Committee, on which Hatch sits, has been marking up the immigration bill since last week; it will continue the debate on amendments Thursday.
Hatch has offered a package of 24 amendments to the bill, and he wants to see some of them adopted before he will lend his support to the measure. But a few of Hatch’s proposals are within the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, and that may make it difficult for Democrats to compromise with him.
“Frankly, there is a desire by some of the Democrats to work with me,” Hatch said.
“If they listened to me I think they could get this done,” he continued, but added, “I have to say there are other amendments that I’ve just plain got to get.
“The four Finance Committee amendments, we have to take those,” Hatch said, even though that could set up a jurisdictional dispute between the two panels. Hatch is ranking member of the Finance Committee.
Still, Democrats may seek to sidestep the turf war by having Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., rule that issues within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction are not germane, which would push those debates to the Senate floor.
There is a history of the panels keeping off each other’s turf. During debate on the health care overhaul, the Finance Committee deferred to the Judiciary Committee on medical-malpractice issues.
Hatch said if Leahy decides to rule the Finance Committee amendments nongermane, his support in committee would hinge on a commitment that the amendments would eventually be added on the floor. That proposal, however, may be a tall order for Democrats to fill.
“That’s my jurisdiction. ... I think they’d make the bill much better, much more palatable for Republicans,” Hatch said of his amendments. “I’d have to have a commitment that they pass.”
Of course, Hatch also flirted in 2009 with a bipartisan attempt to write an overhaul of health care laws, but he ended up walking away from what eventually became known as the “gang of six.” Unlike the immigration working group, that gang of six failed to produce a bill, and Democrats went on to pass the Affordable Care Act without GOP votes.
Still, gang of eight members clearly want Hatch’s support. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is negotiating employer requirements for H-1B visas with Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Hatch. The visas are provided to high-tech immigrant workers such as engineers and scientists. Hatch, in part, thinks the requirements for businesses are burdensome.
“Schumer has indicated to me that they think they have satisfied me, but I haven’t seen what they have suggested,” Hatch said. “He thinks they can solve the problem. If they can, that would go a long way.” Both Schumer and Durbin are members of the Senate group.
Republican members of the group said they, too, are still working with Hatch.
“There were some high-tech things that he wanted. He got one yesterday. There’s some additional things that we’re working on,” Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said. “On the Finance Committee, there are some issues with benefits ... we’re working on that as well. This bill isn’t a finished product.”
While the H-1B issue is being negotiated, an agreement on the Finance-related proposals may be more difficult to forge. There is currently no discussion on those amendments, said a Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of immigration talks.
For example, one Hatch amendment appears to call on the IRS to devise a benchmark for those seeking legalized status to show that they have actually paid back taxes.
Currently under the bill, applicants are not required to have satisfied their lawful federal tax obligations during any period of residency in the country unless the IRS has already discovered that they haven’t been paying their taxes. But with the IRS under scrutiny for targeting conservative groups, Congress may not have faith in the agency to impartially take on this task.
Supporters do not need Hatch’s vote to get the bill out of committee, given that all 10 Democrats will probably support the measure, along with the two Republicans who are in the bipartisan immigration group that drafted the bill. But Hatch’s stamp of approval could help other Republicans support the package both in committee and on the floor. It also could help spur the House to take up the bill.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the bipartisan group, has said he hopes to pass the bill out of the Senate with 70 votes, which he believes will pressure the House to act. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants to get the bill through the Senate before the Independence Day recess.