Then he was on the losing end of a 13 to 5 rout.
For hard-line foes of immigration reform, the lopsided outcome produced a moment of clarity about the challenges they face in repeating their 2007 feat of scuttling comprehensive immigration legislation. Unlike six years ago, the loudest voices of dissent were drowned out by a disciplined performance from a bipartisan group of eight senators who teamed up to fight off the most serious threats to the bill.
“They announced flat out at the beginning of the process that they would rally around and defeat any amendment that would alter their agreement,” Sessions lamented of the group of four Democrats and four Republicans, known as the Gang of Eight. “The core has held, and the bill is coming forward to the floor of the Senate with not a lot of changes.”
The committee vote was only the first skirmish in a long battle ahead for a bill that represents the most sweeping overhaul of immigration law in nearly three decades, its prospects buoyed in part by Republican worries over a lack of Latino support. The legislation moves to the full Senate floor next month, where passage is likely but not guaranteed. The Republican-controlled House is negotiating its own plan, which is expected to be more conservative.
Some immigration hard-liners, while confident they will prevail, acknowledge that proponents are better prepared for the assault from the right that helped block the effort six years ago.
“It’s a testament to the other side’s greater preparation over the past couple of years,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which has opposed increased immigration. “They lined up people in coalitions more effectively. This time they were more prepared. That’s why in general . . . they’ve done better.”
Senate supporters of immigration reform think they emerged from the judiciary panel’s hearings in a strong position, adopting key amendments to help mitigate criticisms. In 2007, when a bipartisan group offered a bill, Senate leaders avoided the committee process and took the legislation directly to the floor, where opponents quickly fractured the coalition with “poison pill” amendments.
This time, heading into the committee hearings, Republican critics sought to employ sustained pressure on the bipartisan group that had drafted the legislation over months of private negotiations. GOP members produced two-thirds of the 301 amendments filed with the committee, focused largely on border security.
The goal, in many cases, was not necessarily to alter the legislation but rather to force the four Gang of Eight members on the committee — Democrats Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Republicans Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) — into difficult votes on issues where Democrats and Republicans are ideologically opposed.
But the eight met in private before each committee hearing, hashing out which amendments they would support and which oppose as a united coalition. Senate aides said amendments were rejected if either side felt they would shatter the deal.
GOP members of the group opposed several tough border-control amendments from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Democrats persuaded the committee chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), to withdraw a proposal that would have granted protections to same-sex couples under immigration laws.
Where possible, the group agreed to accept amendments from Republicans to show that they were serious about working collaboratively and to take the sting out of accusations that the bill was too liberal.
On the first day, the committee adopted an amendment from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a leading critic of the bill, that would require federal agencies to apprehend 90 percent of immigrants trying to enter illegally from Mexico along the entire southwest border, rather than only in “high-risk sectors.”
Behind the scenes, the Gang of Eight had agreed to support the amendment, even though Democrats feared it would risk delaying the path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants who were in the country illegally. Flake and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also worried that resources would be dispersed from Arizona to less-traveled areas in Texas and New Mexico.
Senate aides called the move a strategic olive branch to Grassley, who had been denouncing the hearings as a farce rushing the bill to passage and had filed 77 amendments.
Though he ultimately voted against the legislation, Grassley acknowledged in his closing statement that the process had been “open and transparent” and added that he would have voted in favor if the bill had been in jeopardy of not advancing to the full Senate.
“I appreciate the way the process has gone,” he said. “It was a productive conversation.”
The carefully plotted orchestration was highlighted when the committee debated a Sessions amendment to bar unauthorized immigrants from receiving public benefits until they earned green cards, which would take a decade.
As the voting began, Schumer leaned over to an aide and whispered, “Do our Republicans have a pass on this one?” The comment was picked up on a live microphone, and immigration opponents seized on it as an example of the liberal Democrat coordinating votes with his GOP allies behind the scenes.
Senate aides confirmed that Republicans feared they could not withstand the backlash from voting against the measure, so they agreed privately with the Democrats that the Gang of Eight members would split their votes.
The Gang of Eight “were in total control of everything,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which advocates for low immigration levels.
Beck and Krikorian gave Sessions, Grassley and Cruz credit for doing the best they could under the circumstances, “to draw public attention to the weaknesses of the bill,” Beck said, citing border control in particular. They also expect the debate on the Senate floor to be fiercer.
But in the opening round, at least, “the whole thing was political theater,” Krikorian said. “It was all scripted out; everybody read their lines like they were supposed to. Everybody knew what they were going to do. They knew the outcome of every vote before it happened.”
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