Reid Gives Immigration Talks More Time

Posted May 16, 2007 at 9:08am

Closed-door bipartisan immigration talks brought the Senate to a near standstill Tuesday as Democratic and GOP leaders sought to give negotiators as much flexibility as possible to complete work on a comprehensive reform package that could garner broad support. By Tuesday night, the talks had made enough apparent progress that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided to give negotiators more time to work out the details, postponing from today until Monday a vote on proceeding to last year’s bill. Republicans had been scheduled to have a full Conference meeting this morning in the Capitol to discuss the bill and determine how to proceed, but that gathering was canceled. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said Tuesday evening that progress was being made on the details but staff needed to spend the coming hours drafting language to a prospective bill. Before Reid’s postponement decision, Martinez said he was holding out hope that the cloture vote may be delayed a day or so to allow the text of a measure to come together. “We’re not going to come out tonight and say we got a deal,” Martinez said, heading back into the closed-door talks. “But we are making progress.” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, agreed Tuesday night that progress was being made, but “there are still a few issues outstanding.” He added, “a lot of language has already been prepared” and more drafting is in the works, especially on some of the headier matters. Conservative Republicans said they are uncomfortable agreeing to debate immigration reform before they see any actual bill language, while more moderate GOP Senators may not want to face the political fallout from blocking movement of a hot-button issue heading into 2008. “It’s kind of a minefield,” conceded one GOP Senator. “There’s no unanimity” on how we move forward. GOP Senators huddled Tuesday at their weekly policy luncheon to discuss immigration strategy, but both aides and Senators said no decisions were made on how to proceed. Heading into those talks Tuesday afternoon, Republicans saw at least 10 outstanding issues yet to be resolved. Wading through those could take hours or even days, some Senators said. Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said before the meeting, “It’s a lot more complicated an issue to deal with than people recognized.” “I’ve defended Sen. Reid’s decision” to impose a deadline, Lott said Tuesday before the vote delay was announced, explaining that the pressure often helps bring negotiators to an agreement. “Usually the main players have to get in a room and stay there until good sense or exhaustion wins out. And sometimes it’s a combination of both.” Additionally, while he agreed it may be difficult for lawmakers to agree to begin floor debate if they do not have enough time to review the actual language, he downplayed the likelihood it would stall the effort. “Academically that’s a good thing … [but] I don’t think a lot of Senators are going to actually read the thing. So let’s get real here,” he said. Democrats, meantime, said they want to keep the momentum going — believing that the more pressure put on the process, the greater the chances a bipartisan bill can come about before Memorial Day. Reid now plans to hold a procedural vote Monday that would allow debate to begin, a move that currently would bring up last year’s Senate immigration reform package that garnered 63 votes. That move would worry some Republicans, who fear that if the talks fall apart, Reid will force a do-over on the Senate debate from last year, which even some moderate Republicans argue is no longer workable. At the same time, some GOP Senators don’t want to have to change their vote from last year and face the political fallout associated with switching their position. On the other end of the spectrum, conservative Republicans are concerned that the discussions are tilting too far to the left and ultimately, when the bill goes to conference with the liberal-leaning House, it will be completely unpalatable. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.), one of the lead conservative negotiators, said early Tuesday he believed more time was needed before Senators would feel comfortable agreeing to debate a measure sight unseen. That’s especially true of those Republicans who have not been privy to the intimate bipartisan talks, which have been ongoing for weeks. “We have a responsibility — each of us — to know what we’re voting on,” Cornyn argued. “So, things may have to get pushed back.” Across the Capitol, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday his chamber is still on track to bring an immigration bill to the floor in July, whether or not the Senate can move a bill. “It is our expectation that we will have an immigration bill on the floor in July,” Hoyer said. “Now, could that change depending on what the Senate does? It could change, but at this point in time whether the Senate acts in the next day … or week will not necessarily impact that decision.” A House GOP leadership aide said Democrats are still willing to bring a bill to the floor if the Senate fails to do so as long as Bush can deliver Republican votes. So far Congressional Democrats and the White House have been working closely to move a bill, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) is taking the lead on the issue. “We’ve talked to the president about it, it’s one of the things we think we can work with the president on,” Hoyer said. Susan Davis contributed to this report.