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October 7, 2015

Republican Senators Eye Immigration Concessions

As the Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped another block of its dayslong markup of immigration legislation Tuesday, Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., quipped he was glad such a large space was reserved for the meeting because “the amount of love in this room is amazing.”

But like any affection in Congress, the love between Republicans and Democrats expressed Tuesday was transactional and, perhaps most dauntingly for key negotiators on the sweeping bill, likely ephemeral.

The most significant action taken Tuesday on the underlying bill, negotiated by a bipartisan “gang of eight” senators, was to substantially amend provisions on high-tech visas in an attempt to win the support of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. The newly negotiated H-1B visa deal dramatically increased the caps for high-skilled visas without accounting for domestic economic conditions and was brokered between Hatch and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

But not all senators were comfortable with the changes, chiefly Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who said the amended version of the language would not provide incentives for companies to hire higher-cost American workers first. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who previously worked with Grassley on the high-tech visa issue, appreciated some of the Iowa senator’s concerns but voted for the new agreement.

And though the deal worked to secure Hatch’s backing for the immigration framework in committee, he and other Republicans are demanding more concessions before they back a final bill on the Senate floor.

“I am going to vote this bill out of committee because I’ve committed to do that once this amendment passes,” Hatch told his colleagues as part of the discussion of his measure with Schumer. “But make no mistake about it, those other four amendments that are Finance Committee amendments, we are going to reserve them for the floor, but I’ve got to get those or we’ll never pass those bills.”

“If we don’t get a reasonable resolution to those amendments, I’m going to vote against this bill on the floor,” warned Hatch, who in the past has shown a talent for getting changes to legislation he ultimately opposes.

It’s unclear if the move to drop the hire-Americans-first language from the bill and weaken some protections for American workers can garner ultimate support from those beyond Hatch, even if only Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Grassley voted against it in committee.

Meanwhile, outside the markup, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky vowed that Republicans would not block the immigration bill from the floor when the Judiciary Committee approves it.

“With regard to getting started on the bill, it is my intention, if there is a motion to proceed required, to vote for the motion to proceed so we can get on the bill and see if we are able to pass a bill that actually moves the ball in the right direction,” McConnell told reporters after Tuesday’s weekly party luncheons. But he made clear he’ll want changes on the floor, too. “The status quo is not good,” he said.

But Democrats have indicated that they are only willing to go so far.

Durbin told The New York Times on Monday, “We want all the support we can get, but if the price of support of any Republican member is for us to turn this carefully crafted, politically balanced deal on its head, it’s not worth it.”

It’s not just Hatch’s four other amendments that could create drama on the floor after committee work is done. One of the biggest hot-button issues still to resolve is whether the rights afforded by the current bill will be extended to gay immigrants. It’s a particularly touchy issue for Democrats, who support gay rights generally but also would like to see an immigration bill pass.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declined Tuesday to say whether votes on amendments extending rights to gays and lesbians in the pending immigration bill should happen before the legislation hits the floor.

If the Senate Judiciary Committee currently marking up the bill doesn’t include protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, advocates would face a much tougher hurdle adding an amendment on the Senate floor with a probable 60-vote threshold.

Republicans in a bipartisan group have said such measures are a “nonstarter” and would kill the underlying package.

Leahy has committed to bring up the LGBT rights provisions for a vote but has declined to say whether that would be in committee or on the floor. His committee’s markup could end as soon as Wednesday night.

“Sen. Leahy will make that decision, not me,” Reid said. “He runs the committee and he’s done a good job.”

Reports Tuesday indicated that Leahy had been dealing with Obama officials, though the senator’s office would not comment on whether the White House had asked the chairman to refrain from bringing the LGBT amendments to a vote in committee.

Schumer, one of the bill’s top negotiators, is facing gay rights advocates at home, meeting with top Empire State lawmakers such as city council head and current mayoral candidate Christine Quinn about extending the rights afforded by the current bill to LGBT immigrants.

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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