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The Political Imperative for the GOP on Immigration Reform is to Engage in Leadership, Not Gamesmanship

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Cornyn Amendment Attacks Path to Citizenship, Rubio Moves Erode Trust in Him, Sessions Stalling Tactics Bring Senate Floor Process to a Crawl

The Senate immigration reform debate began this week, ushered in by a resounding 84-15 vote on the Motion to Proceed.  Buoyed by polls that show broad bipartisan support for reform with a path to citizenship from the general public and intense support for reform from Latino voters, many believe that a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate is all but certain.

Enter Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL).  Each poses a threat to the success of the bill.  Here’s how:

  • John Cornyn Threatens Heart of Bill: While there is broad bipartisan support for strengthening the border security measures in the bill, Senator Cornyn’s border security amendment is a thinly-disguised effort to thwart the path to citizenship – the bill’s popular heart and an essential component of workable immigration reform.  As Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted yesterday, Cornyn’s amendment “is designed for the express purpose of killing the bill.”  As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said of the Cornyn amendment, it “would leave millions who aspire to become citizens in indefinite limbo.” Senator John McCain (R-AZ), stated about the Cornyn amendment: “Hopefully we can have an alternative that satisfies some of the concerns without killing the bill.…It’s not possible for us to support his amendment as it is presently written because it is a poison pill.”
  • Is Marco Rubio Turning His Back on Gang of Eight Colleagues & Immigrant Community? Earlier this week, the Huffington Post reported that Senator Rubio was encouraging fellow Republican Senators to hold back support for the Senate immigration bill until it takes on “a more conservative bent.” In addition, Senator Rubio is now pushing for policy changes that seek to upset the carefully negotiated and bipartisan compromise that he himself helped to forge.  In a move certain to erode the trust with fellow Republicans and Democrats that make up the Gang of Eight, Senator Rubio now is pushing for a number of noxious amendments, including new and onerous back taxes and English language requirements, which, if adopted, would severely restrict access to initial legalization and eventual citizenship.  This would mean millions of fewer immigrants would likely be able to qualify for reform.  Coming from a Senator who needs reform to pass in order to help his party and himself, his recent performance calls into question his trustworthiness as an ally and his leadership acumen.
  • Danger Alert for GOP Brand: Jeff Sessions is Still at Center Stage of Immigration Debate:  After having his proposed amendments soundly defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee markup process, leading anti-immigrant Senator Jeff Sessions has now adopted a tactic of delay on the Senate floor, hoping to derail the bill’s momentum through procedural roadblocks.  He won’t let amendments get votes this week.  Undoubtedly, next week he will complain that not enough amendments have been considered.  Add this to his recent distortions, such as his recent claim that “The federal government has reached a point now where virtually no one is being deported except those being convicted of serious crimes” (a stunningly false claim in light of the record-high 409,000 immigrants deported last fiscal year).  The longer that Sessions remains center stage for the Republican Party on immigration, the worse it is for their effort to modernize their brand image among Latino voters.  As new polling from Latino Decisions found, anti-reform statements by Senator Sessions diminished the GOP’s standing with Latino voters by a whopping 72%.

The three senators, each in their own way, are threatening a legislative project that is critical to rehabilitating the GOP’s national prospects.  As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Patricia Murphy of the Daily Beast:

From a political point of view, if this bill fails because the Republican Party doesn’t seem to have been practical, doesn’t seem to have been willing to admit that 11 million people are here and they’re not going to self-deport, we’ll pay a heavy price in 2016.  It will be almost impossible.”