The Hill reports: “Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) struck a deal Tuesday on visas for high-skilled workers, a major breakthrough for the Senate immigration reform bill.” The importance of the deal can’t be overestimated: “Now Democrats have a strong chance of reporting it out of committee with a vote of 13 to 5, with three Republican yes votes.” Those three GOP votes are expected to be Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Orinn Hatch (Utah) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.).
Josh Culling, a spokesman for the pro-immigration reform Americans for Tax Reform, told me, “This is more evidence that the bill’s proponents are open to improvements. In this case, Sen. Hatch recognized that the high-skilled component could be improved to make American companies even more competitive globally.” He added, “It’s also worth noting that the key opponent of this is the same old foil — the AFL-CIO — which has never wanted more legal immigration. Sen. Hatch went toe-to-toe with the unions and won, and we have a better bill because of it.”
Many immigration reformers are puzzled by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who was once one of the Republicans most supportive of immigration reform. In interviews with me, most recently just after the 2012 election, Cornyn consistently sounded concerned about the GOP’s position on immigration and took great exception to Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation.” Last November this was how he sounded:
Cornyn says, “I come from the perspective of my state. We’re a third Hispanic.” He calls it a “demographic necessity” for Republicans to expand their appeal with Hispanics. (In a specific criticism of Romney, he notes, “He got pushed to the right on immigration in the primary and never made it back.”) He says immigration reform is not a cure-all for Republicans. He cautions that in courting Hispanics, “The first thing you have to do is show up. You have to demonstrate respect.” And he points to education, social issues and pro-business policies as other issues that Republicans should be using to expand their appeal.
But he comes back to the tone and the substance of immigration policy. He visibly recoils when he repeats some of the catch-phrases that turn off Hispanics — “self-deportation” or “attrition.” He is optimistic that with border security and work-site enforcement there should be a “straightforward solution” to dealing with the 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. He recalls that in 2005 he and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) introduced an immigration bill that “still looks pretty good.” He says matter of factly of the prospects for immigration reform, “A lot of work has been done on this. We know what the range of choices are we need to find a way to advance it.”
A “no” vote now would likely be seen by Hispanics in his state and pro-immigration reformers as a flip-flop designed to avoid a primary. His office declined comment. Those familiar with his thinking insist he believes the triggers are insufficient. It remains to be seen whether amendments on the floor can alleviate his concerns.
Some other Republicans are holding back. A spokesman for Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) says she’s undecided at this point. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s communications director Jeff Sadosky says his boss will “continue to monitor [the amendment process], and will continue to focus in on the internal enforcement measures in the legislation, because without strong job-site enforcement and the tools necessary to prevent identification card fraud, no reform will be a long-term solution.”
Failure to get Hatch on board would have spelled trouble for the bill. But with his support, middle-of-the-road conservatives and moderate Republicans could well become yes votes. The margin for the pro-Gang of Eight side is important, both to escape the threat of a filibuster and to make an impressive showing that would encourage House action.
Democrats are trying to keep their base from overreaching and thereby killing the deal. Huffington Post reports: “Two people familiar with the Senate immigration deliberations say the White House has suggested to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy that it would be best to put off a controversy over gay marriage until a bill goes before the full Senate.”
With Hatch on board the chances of a solid victory increase, but they are by no means certain.