The Senate Judiciary Committee is gearing up for the grand finale in marking up a rewrite of immigration laws, with indications that work can be completed before the Senate departs for the Memorial Day break.
Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., will reconvene his panel at 10 a.m. on May 20, and he's warning of late nights ahead.
"I've been requested to by both Republicans and Democrats if we can have late-night sessions if need be to move this along so that we can complete it," Leahy said Thursday.
"The bill can be printed, the report can be printed during the Memorial Day recess," he added, explaining the timeline.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday on the Senate floor that the amended version of the immigration plan drafted by the "gang of eight" senators will hit the floor as soon as it is ready in June, even if that means turning away from the farm bill that goes to the floor May 20.
"I pledge that as soon as it is ready, I will bring immigration legislation to the floor in June, regardless of whether we have completed action on the farm bill," Reid said. "Although immigration is a complex and controversial issue that deserves ample time for thoughtful debate and consideration, it is also too important to delay action any longer."
Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., thought that the immigration matter wouldn't cause a problem for her bill, noting that Leahy is the senior member of the Agriculture panel, as well.
The Judiciary Committee has considered 99 amendments to the bill so far and will next take up interior enforcement provisions, with work still ongoing to reach deals on an assortment of contentious pieces, including the number of visas for high-skilled immigrants and whether committed gay couples will be included in the bill.
Here are eight intriguing developments from the past week:
1. Beef With South Korea
Ranking member Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, made a bid to use the immigration bill as the venue to criticize South Korea's restrictions on importing U.S. beef. He offered an amendment on Tuesday that would have blocked South Korean citizens from getting certain U.S. visas until the country lifts beef import restrictions. That fell on a voice vote.
2. Luck of the Irish
Irish immigrants have plenty of support on the Judiciary panel. When Grassley sought to provide a two-year sunset for a visa program benefiting Irish immigrants, he was quickly rebuffed by Democrats, including gang of eight Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York.
"We share much more in common than people would think. For instance, we are the only two Charles E.'s in the Senate, the only two Chucks in the Senate. There used to be four: Robb and Hagel, but now it's just you and me," Schumer said to Grassley.
There's no shortage of targeted amendments being adopted without too much notice. For instance, Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, is proving effective in getting amendments through regarding unique circumstances in her home state. One would make people from Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands living in the U.S. eligible for Medicaid. Another would change rules for crews of fishing vessels.
4. E-Verify Changes
The Judiciary panel has modified the E-Verify system that would be mandatory under the immigration overhaul. On one side, Chris Coons, D-Del., secured a change to require that Homeland Security notify people whenever their names get run through E-Verify, so they know when their information is being reviewed. Grassley also won approval of a change that requires weekly reporting on people who fail such background checks.
5. The Hatch Factor
How to deal with high-skilled immigrant visas remains an unresolved question. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, has said that he would need to see changes to that section for the gang of eight senators to have a chance to win his vote. Democrats signaled Thursday that they are continuing to try to cut a deal between Durbin and Hatch on such visas, with Schumer appearing to serve as something of an intermediary.
Hatch also wants a guarantee that some amendments — such as those regarding back taxes from immigrants who are gaining legal status — will win approval as a condition of his support for the package. That's a bit murkier, as the amendments fall within the purview of the Finance Committee, where Hatch serves as ranking member.
6. Sessions Alone
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., found no support for his bid to impose lower limits on legal immigration, losing an amendment vote 1-17. “One of the ways we make the border secure is in improving or streamlining legal immigration, and I am a full-throated advocate of legal immigration," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, of that amendment before he voted against it.
7. Health Care Questions
CQ Roll Call has reported that a quirk in the bill could give a perverse incentive for employers to hire newly legalized immigrants instead of citizens to avoid health insurance coverage requirements or penalties under the 2010 health care overhaul. Top aides and gang of eight member John McCain, R-Ariz., have signaled that they're all looking for a way to resolve that issue.
8. Some Will Never Agree
The thorough committee process that's included adoption of many Democratic and GOP amendments isn't changing the minds of outside critics, a reminder that some people will never be won over within the gang of eight framework. “As amended, this bill virtually assures that Congress will be considering demands for the next amnesty in just a few years," said Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates lower immigration levels. That's a statement that bill supporters left, right and center would strenuously contest.