Schumer Quietly Works Immigration

Posted December 15, 2009 at 5:59pm

While House Democrats have chosen to push a purely partisan immigration reform bill that is all but dead on arrival, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is taking a different approach in his chamber: quietly trying to build a bipartisan coalition for a measure that could actually be approved next year.

Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat as vice chairman of the Conference, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have worked for months to reach an agreement on the controversial issue, and aides say just a few issues remain before the duo offers “conceptual language— for their bill. The package could be released as soon as January and taken up in the Judiciary Committee soon thereafter.

“We welcome all efforts to move immigration forward,— said Schumer, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. “We are working hard with Republicans in the Senate to craft a bipartisan bill that can pass over here. We’re not there yet, but we’re making good progress.—

Schumer holds the Judiciary subcommittee gavel formerly held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and it remains to be seen how the aggressive former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman will broker deals on one of the most politically dicey issues facing Congress.

So far this year, Schumer has held several one-on-one meetings with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Schumer has also met with business organizations and labor groups in recent months to try to stem any early opposition to his forthcoming bill.

Graham, for his part, seems to be equally invested. Some immigration reform backers previously questioned whether Graham was truly committed to getting a bill done, a view that they no longer hold. “I would say he is more focused,— said Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum.

Congress has tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the past, but with little success. In 2007, Senators appeared to be closing in on a bipartisan deal with the Bush administration, but the effort blew up in the face of conservative opposition.

Schumer and Graham appear to be taking a different tack this time, hoping to quietly build support for a bill before holding high-profile meetings with influential lawmakers, the administration and stakeholders.

The Senate is also taking a different approach to the House, where on Tuesday a group of liberal Democrats led by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) unveiled a reform package that even they acknowledged would not pass. The bill calls for a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants, family reunification policies and another push for the controversial AgJOBS program, which would grant temporary immigration status to undocumented farm workers.

Immigration advocates are keenly aware of the delicate balance that Schumer is trying to strike.

“I don’t think it’s anything different than two Senators [who] are grossly immersed in the hottest and heaviest issues,— said Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress. “Schumer really sits at the center of gravity of the health care debate and Graham is focused on climate change.—

Several lobbyists suggested Schumer and Graham may be taking a low-profile approach to the issue to avoid early criticism. The Senators, they said, don’t want to introduce a bill too early only to have it picked apart by naysayers.

“To their credit and our angst, they’ve not shared anything on paper,— Noorani said.

Nor have they shared anything with the media. Graham refused to comment when asked about the negotiations.

Schumer has said publicly that he wants to introduce legislation in January. That timing could slip, however, depending on how fast Democrats move on health care reform. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), whose committee has jurisdiction over the issue, said he would defer to leadership on the timing.

“I will be working with the Majority Leader, the Obama administration and Sen. Schumer on comprehensive immigration reform legislation,— Leahy said. “There are many legislative priorities before the Senate, and I will continue to work with the Majority Leader once a bill has been introduced.—

Next year’s election-year climate could also create obstacles for reform: Moderates facing re-election in GOP-leaning districts could be reticent to take on another controversial issue.

“I find it hard to believe Democrats will want to bring it up next year,— said Subcommittee on Immigration ranking member John Cornyn (R-Texas), whom Schumer has not consulted for his bill. “I guess I’ll believe it when I see it.—

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report