Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., cautioned Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., against undermining the panel’s process as it seeks to take up a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Leahy expressed his warning in a letter, obtained by CQ Roll Call. It is addressed to Sessions and dated March 21. The letter appears to be a response to a March 19 letter written by Sessions and five other Republicans, who raised concerns that the committee would not have enough debate time when it considers an immigration overhaul next month.
“I hope it is not your intention to discredit the process we undertake in the Judiciary Committee before we begin,” Leahy wrote. “As Chairman, I have been fair and protected the rights of all Members of the Committee, Republicans and Democrats, throughout my tenure.”
He continued, “I intend to proceed to comprehensive immigration reform with all deliberate speed.”
Leahy also took Sessions to task for making the letter public before Leahy had received it. The letter was also sent to the bipartisan group of eight senators working to draft immigration legislation — which includes Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — as well as to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“I understand that you organized a letter to me from some of the Republican Senators on the Judiciary Committee,” Leahy wrote. “Since it was distributed to the press and you went to the Senate press gallery to talk about it before I received it, I am not sure whether you really meant your ‘open letter’ for me, for the group of Senators meeting with Senator McCain, or just for the press.”
Leahy defended his stewardship of the committee and his treatment of the minority party.
“You know that I am always available to you if you have a concern and that, as Chairman, I have always treated you and all members of the Committee fairly,” Leahy wrote. “I have gone out of my way to protect the rights of the minority on the Committee despite the treatment Democratic Senators received preceding my chairmanship.”
Leahy suggested that perhaps Sessions’ concern has more to do with not being included in the group of eight senators.
“I appreciate your frustration as someone excluded from the group that Senator McCain has pulled together to try to develop a bipartisan legislative proposal,” Leahy said. “Maybe that is why you copied him on the letter as well as the Senate Republican Leader. That is not a beef you have with me.”
Nevertheless, Leahy assured Sessions that the proposal would be considered in committee under regular order and in an open process and that he would have the opportunity to amend the legislation.
“Under the Rules of our Committee, you will have your rights protected to hold over the legislation the first week it is listed on the Committee’s agenda,” Leahy said. “After that, you will have the right to circulate and offer amendments.”
He also urged Sessions to not take any dilatory actions.
“I hope and expect that you will not delay consideration simply to prevent the legislation from moving forward,” Leahy wrote. “Artificial delays, delays for delays’ sake, has tainted too much of the Senate’s work over the last few years. That obstruction has contributed to the historically low esteem in which Congress is held by the American people.”
Leahy also noted that Republicans have criticized Democrats in the past for a lack of transparency, even when they do hold hearings and long markups, such as when Congress considered the health care overhaul.
“But, again, it was not lost on me that despite the countless hours of public hearings and marathon sessions of public markups in multiple committees on the Affordable Care Act, that fact did not prevent claims that somehow it was not a transparent process,” Leahy wrote. “You raise that, again, in your recent letter.”
In a statement at an immigration hearing last week, Leahy announced that because the group of eight had not yet unveiled its bill, that it was unlikely that the committee could mark up the measure before the end of April.
Leahy also had hoped to broaden the discussion to those on the committee, which has jurisdiction over the nation’s immigration policy, because so far only the eight senators have been privy to the negotiations and only some of them sit on Judiciary.
The group of eight hopes to unveil its bill the week of April 8 and intends to reach out to Leahy to encourage him to hold a markup as soon as possible after the bill is released.