Will the Dems Go It Alone On Immigration?

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The Senate leadership is planning to introduce a summary outline of an immigration bill shortly before 6 p.m. on Thursday, one day after circulating a draft to advocacy groups. The framework—whose existence I reported earlier this week and which is spearheaded by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—seems to have been written with the intention of attracting support from moderates on both sides of the aisle. But if Dems can’t get Republicans to sign on, will they go it alone?

According to Roll Call, “the package would require that a series of new border security benchmarks be met before broader immigration reforms are enacted—including a legalization process for illegal immigrants.” This two-step process seems pitched directly at those Republicans—chief among them Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who’ve demanded that the federal government secure the border first before tackling other immigration reforms. (Graham had been working with Schumer on a bipartisan immigration bill, but he turned on the Democrats after news that immigration might move ahead of climate legislation, which he’s also working on.) The rest of the Democrats’ draft outline adheres closely to the basic principles of the Schumer-Graham plan, including stricter rules about hiring illegal immigrants and expanded visa programs for high-tech and low-skilled immigrant workers.

Praising the draft for offering many “very positive developments,” Mary Giovagnoli, head of the Immigration Policy Center, said there were “not any surprises” in the proposal. “It’s designed so that Graham can have a seat at the table, if he wants to take it.” Some Republican proponents of immigration reform were also enthusiastic. “I think conservatives can agree with many of the principles of this proposal,” Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official and a fellow with the Latino Project for Conservative Principles, said in a conference call Thursday afternoon. “We would love to see a bill this year.”

By releasing their plan so quickly, Democrats seem intent on providing evidence that they’re trying to fast-track the issue. And immigration reform advocates are urging legislators to act as quickly as possible. “It’s important now that we’ve gotten the framework that there isn’t a huge lag between the framework and moving to the next step,” Giovagnoli says. But Democrats will need Republicans votes to pass a bill, and there’s been no indication yet that any of the Senate Republicans approached on immigration—including Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Judd Gregg (R-NH), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—are willing to sign on, despite overtures from President Barack Obama and others. Though there are reports that the Democrats would try to get more moderate Democrats to be co-sponsors if Republicans don’t join the legislation, pushing a Democrats-only immigration bill would quickly spark accusations that the party is trying to ram through a hyperpartisan proposal.

Obama himself admitted Wednesday that Congress might not have the appetite to tackle immigration this year. “We’ve gone through a very tough year, and I’ve been driving Congress pretty hard,” Obama said. He added, however, that “we need to start a process, at least.” That’s what the Senate Democrats are doing right now—and these preliminary steps are what immigration reformers have to content themselves with, for the moment.

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