Column: Courting the Fence-Sitters on Immigration
The attempted seduction of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, by immigration reformers is akin to my effort to get Neil Patrick Harris, the best emcee ever of any awards show, to sing at my next birthday. No matter how much I offer him, he’ll turn me down.
That’s the situation in which Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida finds himself with several Republican colleagues. Take his wooing of Cornyn. Cornyn is just not that into immigration reform. He won re-election comfortably in 2008 by 12 points, despite losing the Hispanic vote by 25 points.
But Rubio is willing to poison his own bill, which the Senate voted June 11 to take up, to get him on board. Cornyn wants to link heightened border security to a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally. This would make an onerous legislative process impossibly more onerous.
Unlike many of his colleagues — including his state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, who wants anyone already here illegally to automatically be barred forever from legal status — Cornyn gets heard because he’s seemingly on the fence. On television last weekend, Rubio tipped his hat to Cornyn: “If we cannot secure the border and cannot take the necessary steps to earn our colleagues’ trust, this will never become law.” The same sentiment was voiced by two other Republican senators, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Republicans in the Senate’s Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group that wrote the immigration reform bill, look like they’re willing to drown their own measure with amendments. In the Senate Judiciary Committee, 301 amendments were offered, 162 were voted on, and 92 were approved. One of the more prolific amenders is Charles Grassley of Iowa, who was responsible for about 30 percent of them, even managing to bring up an old grudge over what South Korea did to the farmers of his state during the mad-cow crisis in 2003.
Guess who’s in charge of the bill on the floor? Mr. Amendment himself, Charles Grassley. Rubio, who signals he’s no sure vote himself, introduced an amendment that requires “English proficiency” for legal status. Expect thousands more amendments before the Senate votes on the bill next month.
Yes, Republicans want a bill — a watered-down bill that nevertheless retains Democratic support. The politics of immigration are so twisted it is hard to know what people really think, regardless of how they vote. What unites all Republicans who support the bill is a desire to see the party back in the White House someday. Some of these Republicans really want to keep immigrant families together. Others don’t give a hoot about deporting Grandpa. (There are also those who will simply vote their consciences, but that group is too small to count.)
Weaving his way through this minefield is Rubio, who is looking over his shoulder at Rush Limbaugh, who could sour on him at any moment. Rubio’s easiest job is to write off his outspoken colleagues such as Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Cruz. There’s nothing he can do to get them. His focus is the Cornyns of the Senate, who want so many concessions that Democrats, who thought they had a deal with Rubio, begin to peel off. And if the bill fails, Rubio is deprived of a shiny object to take into a national election.
Any more concessions and it would be like turning over my Frequent Flier miles to Neil Patrick Harris, who’s never going to help blow out the candles on my cake. With a thousand amendments to come, and all those Cornyns to keep happy, Rubio may well find that sweet spot where Republican conservatives come on board and Democrats don’t jump off. Maybe, just maybe, our dysfunctional Senate can pass a bill to fix our dysfunctional immigration system. Let’s not think about wooing a dysfunctional House.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.