And there’s Jeff Sessions, 66, of Alabama, a wily Senate veteran and former federal prosecutor with a thick Southern drawl, who in recent months has devoted his considerable legislative and legal talents to dismantling the bill, bit by bit by bit.
In many ways, the two men represent the two Republican parties that emerged from the GOP’s dismal showing at the polls in 2012: one eager to modernize and grow, the other steadfast in its conservative principles, determined not to be coerced into politically expedient compromise. The side that prevails on immigration will probably be the dominant face of the GOP going into next year’s midterm elections and the 2016 presidential campaign.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the bipartisan gang, agreed that both senators embody the intraparty struggle on immigration. “What the party’s got to do is have a principled debate,” he said.
Graham called Flake “a value-added” to the Senate’s immigration talks and gave his friend Sessions credit for being “consistent” in his criticism of the effort.
Despite that, Graham said, “I’d go to war with both of them.”
On the immigration bill, the key battle so far is within the GOP.
Flake and Sessions say they share the goal of overhauling the nation’s immigration system with a special concern for fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border. But their visions for that overhaul differ sharply.
“I’ve always felt that if you’re going to be here for 20 or 30 years in a legal status, why not have the possibility and the opportunity and the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship?” Flake said in a recent interview. “That’s what sets us apart from other countries; it’s a good thing.”
Sessions thinks the current bill is too generous to immigrants who may seek legal status and not aggressive enough on border security.
“We all favor a good immigration reform package. This bill is just not it,” he said Thursday.
Flake needs an immigration bill to pass to meet the expectations of Arizonans who have been living on the front lines of the immigration fight for decades. He must also contend with the political reality of Arizona’s fast-growing Latino population, which has been trending Democratic, partly because of the GOP’s hard-line positions on immigration.
Flake is among those who believe that failure to enact immigration reform could severely handicap the GOP for a long time. With months of complex, closed-door negotiations behind him, he has been walking a fine line, being very careful about making pronouncements on the issue. Since the immigration debate began two weeks ago, he has spoken for only about 20 minutes on the Senate floor.