One year ago, with the presidential race in full swing and proponents of self-deportation making the headlines, it would have been difficult to predict the extraordinary vote that took place Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ten Democrats and three Republicans voted to pass S. 744 out of committee and send a comprehensive immigration bill to the Senate floor. This could never have happened without the overwhelming support for immigration reform that the public has shown, particularly since the November 2012 election. Even with that support, however, there was no guarantee that the long, slow process of negotiating and drafting a bipartisan bill that could succeed in committee (and then the Senate floor) would ever come to fruition. And once a bill is introduced, getting it through committee requires a mix of political acumen to keep the bill alive.
The intricate dance necessary to pass legislation of this scope and complexity was on full display during the mark-up process. There were plenty of amendments that the Gang of Eight deemed “deal-breakers” among the 300 total that were offered, including measures to require fencing on every mile of the southern border, expand the date of eligibility for RPI status, eliminate judicial review for legalization, include gun control within immigration provisions, restore the sibling category, and provide equal rights for same-sex couples.
Some of these amendments and many others were withdrawn after Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin convinced mostly junior Democratic Senators to withdraw more liberal amendments or vote against amendments that expanded rights for the undocumented or for legal immigrants. Republican Senators, particularly Jeff Sessions and Ted Cruz, on the other hand, seemed to delight in forcing the two Republican Gang of Eight members, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake, to vote “no” time and again on increased border security and other “get tough” amendments. In the face of this pressure from colleagues, the fact that all four Gang of Eight senators on the Judiciary Committee stuck together to preserve the heart of the bill was remarkable.
Simply hanging together would not have been enough to pass the bill out of committee, however. The Gang of Eight senators also showed a willingness to compromise—to admit that their decidedly imperfect bill could benefit from the collective wisdom of the committee. Ultimately, after intense negotiations over H-1B amendments, that willingness to compromise brought Senator Hatch into the fold, making him the third Republican to vote in favor of the bill. Senator Grassley, a vocal critic of the bill for failing to go far enough on enforcement, nonetheless praised Senator Leahy, the committee chair, and the Gang of Eight members for the spirit of compromise and willingness to debate issues that they brought to the table. Both Senators Grassley and Cornyn made a point of saying that they would not block consideration of the bill on the floor because they felt they had received a fair hearing in committee. In other words, they felt other senators had considered and respected their views on S. 744, even within the context of the broader deal the bill represented.
As committee chairman, Senator Leahy deserves credit for creating an atmosphere in which deliberation and compromise prevailed. Although he couldn’t resist the occasional jab at his Republican colleagues, especially Senator Sessions’ desire to speak on every amendment (including those that were withdrawn), he made it clear that they would take the time necessary to consider and talk about every aspect of the bill, even if that meant late nights (it did) or Saturdays (it did not). As he proudly noted, this mark-up represented a first for the committee, in which all amendments were filed days before the hearings began and were posted online, listed by senator, so that everyone knew what would be discussed and what people cared about. This process facilitated debate, allowed members to negotiate and make second degree amendments (amendments to amendments) ahead of time, and to weigh what was most important. It probably reduced the amount of time the committee met and yet increased the sense that all issues had been fairly heard.
But what works in committee won’t necessarily work on the Senate floor. One hopes that the model Senator Leahy and the committee members set for deliberation and negotiation will carry forward, but the dynamics on the floor will be different. For one thing, many Senators on both sides will want to offer amendments that they did not bring up in committee, either because they respected the wishes of the Gang of Eight process or they knew their amendment was a lost cause in committee. More conservative committee members will have more allies on the Senate floor, as will more liberal members. And the Gang of Eight’s commitment to each other and the bill will be tested anew, especially when a bloc of four votes doesn’t mean as much on the Senate floor as it does in committee.
In the long run, however, the win in committee and the overall sense that the committee members had taken an historic step together—all of them, regardless of their final vote—sets the stage for one of the most exciting debates the Senate has seen in a long, long time.