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Immigration Bill Remains Largely Intact After 1st Hearing


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Let's get an update now on one of this year's major policy debates. There is an immigration bill under consideration. The law, if passed, has the potential to be a major success story for President Obama and for the bipartisan group of lawmakers who drafted it. Opponents of the bill have major concerns about how it treats people who came to the U.S. illegally, and also about how much the law would cost.

The bill yesterday passed its first test in the U. S. Senate. Backers fended off amendments that would either slow down or stop the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It's no secret the markup in committee of a bill is a great opportunity for opponents to insert poison pills. So when the 10 Democrats and eight Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sat down yesterday to start plowing through more than 300 proposed amendments, they heard this plea from New York Democrat Charles Schumer.


REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES SCHUMER: There are many who will want to kill this bill. I would ask my colleagues, if you don't agree with everything - no one does - be constructive. We are open to changes. But don't make an effort to kill a bill that is the best hope for immigration reform, I believe, that we've had in this country.

WELNA: Schumer is one of two Democrats on the committee in the Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group of senators who drafted the immigration bill. South Carolina's Lindsey Graham is one of the panel's two Republicans in that same group.

REPRESENTATIVE LINDSEY GRAHAM: This is a day that we've all been waiting for. We're going to have a spirited debate.

WELNA: And the debate that ensued essentially came down to this: Should the bill strengthen border security and give legal status to millions of immigrants simultaneously, as it's currently written? Or should it require that the border first be deemed secure before anything else happens?

Iowa's Charles Grassley is the committee's ranking Republican. He's deeply skeptical of claims by the bill's sponsors that its passage will stanch the flow of illegal immigration. Grassley offered an amendment making the granting of legal status to anyone contingent on first securing the border.


SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: It requires the entire border, not just high risk areas, to be controlled. It says the secretary of security and fencing strategies, as called for in the underlying bill, would have to be fully implemented before green cards are distributed.

WELNA: But the other Republican on the panel in the Gang of Eight, Arizona's Jeff Flake, said Grassley's amendment would hold back giving legal status to 11 million immigrants already in the country.


SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: You've got to bring people out of the shadows, and to delay that process, I think, would not be the right approach.

WELNA: Flake and Graham, the two GOP Gang of Eighters, joined every committee Democrat in voting against Grassley's amendment and six others like it. Just four other Republicans voted for an unfunded measure offered by Texas Republican Ted Cruz that would triple the number of Border Patrol agents and quadruple spending on other border security. Cruz warned the bill would not pass without tougher border controls.


SENATOR TED CRUZ: Contrary to the hopes I expressed this morning at the outset of this hearing, the committee has voted down every serious border security amendment that has been presented here today.

WELNA: That proved too much for Gang of Eight leader Schumer, who lashed out at Cruz.


SCHUMER: He cannot support any bill with a path to citizenship. And the nub of the difference here is the trigger and when you can become a citizen, if at all. So let's not keep bringing up this false issue that we do nothing on border security. Our bill is tough as nails on border security.

WELNA: By day's end, the committee disposed of more than 30 amendments, and the bill remained largely intact. The unity of those backing it could be put to a real test, though, by another amendment waiting in the queue. It's a measure proposed by chairman Patrick Leahy that would allow gay Americans to sponsor foreign-born spouses applying for green cards, just as other married Americans can do already.

Republicans are warning that for them, such an amendment would amount to a poison pill. Leahy has not indicated whether he'll offer the amendment in committee, or wait until the bill goes to the full Senate, most likely next month. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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