As President Barack Obama courts Hispanic support for rewriting U.S. immigration laws, the issue is complicating the political calculations for a group of senators whose votes he will need to win passage.
While leaders of both parties say addressing immigration is crucial to capturing the growing Hispanic vote, senators including Montana’s Max Baucus, a Democrat, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, a Republican, will be running for re-election in 2014 in states where voters have been hostile to any plan that might be characterized as giving amnesty to those who entered the country illegally.
Six years ago, vocal public opposition to the idea of offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship was strong enough to scuttle a proposal backed by Republican President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of senators. An attempt to revive the issue in 2010 also was derailed.
Incumbents facing a primary challenge or a close general election in next year’s campaign season may have an incentive to oppose the plan’s path to citizenship, said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
“The potential for it being the bright, shiny object of 2014 definitely exists,” Duffy said in a telephone interview. “It’s fair to say that you’ll see it both in primaries and general elections.”
The 60-vote threshold for advancing major legislation in the Senate presents one of the biggest hurdles for a comprehensive immigration bill. Electoral pressures in the Senate -- where Democrats will defend 20 seats in 2014, compared with 13 for Republicans -- are among the dynamics that make counting votes complicated. Democrats control 55 votes in the 100-member chamber.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat and an author of a bipartisan framework for revising immigration law unveiled earlier this week, predicted the “overwhelming majority of Democrats in the Senate” would back the overhaul.
“But we won’t get all of them,” Schumer said at a breakfast sponsored by Politico yesterday. “So we’re going to need a good number of Republicans to vote for the bill to get 60.”
Like Baucus, five other Democrats -- Alaska’s Mark Begich, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- are up for re-election in 2014 in states that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried in November.
Graham, part of the group that released the bipartisan immigration blueprint on Jan. 28, is viewed as vulnerable to a primary challenge. Similar political threats could face Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Texas’s John Cornyn, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican.
Obama has sought to keep up pressure on lawmakers to avoid a repeat of 2007 when opposition drained all momentum for passing an immigration package. In a Jan. 29 speech in Las Vegas, he gave a cautious endorsement of the Senate plan and urged lawmakers to act quickly. Yesterday, he did the same in interviews with Spanish-language television stations Univision and Telemundo.
“This is something that we should be able to get done certainly this year, and I’d like to see if we can get it done sooner, in the first half of the year if possible,” Obama said in the Telemundo interview.
In his interview with Univision, Obama suggested changes to immigration law have better chance of passage than his push for new controls on gun purchases and ownership.
“My suspicion is we’re seeing more bipartisan discussion on the immigration issue, than on the gun issue,” he said.
He stressed the importance of an immigration package including the route to citizenship.
“What we don’t want to do is to create some vague prospect in the future that somehow comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship will happen, you know, mañana,” he said in the Univision interview. “We want to make sure that we’re very clear that this legislation provides a real pathway.”
Baucus, Landrieu and Pryor voted in 2007 not to advance the Bush-backed immigration overhaul. Baucus, Hagan and Pryor in 2010 opposed legislation known as the Dream Act that would have provided a path to legal status for younger undocumented immigrants.
The senators have remained noncommittal when asked about the latest immigration proposal.
“There is no legislative language; I’ll have to see what it is,” Baucus said.
Hagan, who said in 2010 she opposed the Dream Act because she preferred a comprehensive approach to revising immigration law, said in a statement she still wanted a broad overhaul and would “consider any proposals in that context.”
She won her seat in 2008 when Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The president lost the state in his re-election campaign by two percentage points.
Landrieu also stopped short of embracing the bipartisan immigration framework, calling it a “good start.”
“I look forward to the debate ahead to strengthen it,” Landrieu said in a statement.
Johnson told the Argus Leader newspaper in his home state that he too is waiting before passing judgment. “The devil is in the details and we’re waiting for legislation to be drafted,” he told the Sioux Falls-based newspaper.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat and another leader of the immigration-overhaul push, told reporters today that at least one Democrat who has opposed a path to citizenship in the past had told him of a change of heart. Durbin declined to name the senator, while predicting that skeptics would be “pleasantly surprised” by the level of Democratic support.
The Senate group, which includes four Democrats and four Republicans, is calling for tougher border security and enforcement before providing a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. These immigrants would face a prolonged process to remain in the country legally.
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers that has been working together for more than three years will introduce its own immigration proposal as early as mid-February, according to a congressional aide who asked not to be named because the plan hasn’t been finished. The House members’ plan includes steps that could lead to citizenship, the aide said.
The immigration issue could especially play a role in 2014 races for open Senate seats in Georgia, Iowa and West Virginia, Duffy said.
The Senate proposal, which members of the group want to draft into legislation by March, would need the support of at least one more Republican senator to get the 60 votes to advance. The number of Republican backers needed would increase with every Democratic defection.
One factor working in proponents’ favor is the Republican defeat in the 2012 presidential election, which has compelled the party to seek the support of more Latino voters. The rapidly growing voting group cast 71 percent of its votes for Obama in November.
Still, some Republicans are already under pressure from outside groups that oppose the Senate framework.
The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based group that supports smaller government, said in a statement that the latest immigration effort is poised to repeat “the mistakes of the past.” The group said that could “further polarize Americans, fail to solve the real policy problems and make matters worse.”
Opposition from Heritage and other groups may make it harder for vulnerable Republicans to support the legislation, especially the path to citizenship.
Immigration legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status and created a market for fraudulent documentation. Illegal immigration soared, casting a shadow on subsequent efforts to legalize immigrants.
“I think predicting how one is going to vote on this package before it gets out of committee is something I’m not prepared to do,” McConnell told reporters this week.
Graham said he’s reassuring conservatives he speaks to in South Carolina that the plan would include “an earned legalization process” that would make it possible to secure the border “and control who gets a job.”
“I feel good that we’re going to get more than our fair share of conservatives who understand now’s the time,” Graham said in an interview.
Another Republican seeking re-election next year, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, pledged “to ask the tough questions” on the latest effort. In 2007, Sessions was one of the chamber’s most vocal opponents of a path to citizenship.
“I remember, particularly 2007, I was intrigued by that legislation and thought it might be acceptable,” he said. “But, as we reviewed it carefully, we realized it was not going to work when it got put into legislative language. So that’s my concern this time.”