By Alexander Bolton - 05/15/14 06:00 AM EDT
Senate Republicans say they'll try to pass immigration reform legislation in the next two years if they take back the Senate in November.
The Republicans say winning back the Senate will allow them to pass a series of bills on their own terms that have a better chance of winning approval in the House.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a central member of the coalition that passed a comprehensive reform bill in the Senate last year, said he would craft a better legislative approach if Republicans control the upper chamber in 2015.
That would give his party a chance to pass immigration legislation before the presidential election, when Hispanic voters will be crucial to winning the White House.
But Democrats are threatening that if the House does not pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year the issue will be dead in 2015 and 2016, sinking the GOP brand among Hispanics ahead of the 2016 election.
“I certainly think we can make progress on immigration particularly on topics like modernizing our legal immigration system, improving our mechanisms for enforcing the law and I think if you did those things you could actually make some progress on addressing those who are illegally,” Rubio said Wednesday evening of the prospects of passing immigration reform in 2015.
He said the Senate next year should pass immigration reform through a series of sequential bills that build upon each other to enact comprehensive reform. This approach would be more palatable in the House, he said.
Rubio said he was not fully satisfied with the comprehensive bill that passed the Senate last year, adding Republicans would “absolutely” pass better legislation if they pick up six or more seats in the midterm election.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is poised to take over as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he will vote to pass immigration legislation in the next Congress if Republicans ascend to the majority.
“We’d start over again next year,” Grassley said, when asked about the next steps if Congress does not pass immigration reform by September.
“I’d make a decision about whether you could get more done by separate bills or a comprehensive bill,” he said.
Grassley said he may have supported the 2013 Senate immigration bill if it had tougher border security and interior enforcement provisions.
“For that reason, not for the legal immigration stuff that’s in it,” he said, explaining why he voted against it.
Only 14 Republicans voted for the Senate bill, which conservative critics panned for giving too much discretion to the Obama administration in deciding how its border security requirements would be met.
Senate Republicans believe that House Republicans would be more likely to pass immigration reform if the midterm election shifts control of the upper chamber because it would be easier to negotiate a Senate-House compromise.
House conservatives have opposed bringing immigration legislation to the House floor because they fear even a narrow bill could be used as a vehicle to jam the sprawling Senate bill through the House. That threat would be less dire if the Senate passed a series of smaller immigration reform bills.
“It could pass if we break it down into smaller pieces,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas). “[The House] has always been amenable to passing smaller bills on a step-by-step basis.”
Once Congress passes legislation to tighten border security and interior enforcement, it could pave the way for a deal legalizing an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, expanding work visas and enlarging the flow of legal immigration, Senate Republicans argue.
Democrats, however, would balk at reforming the nation’s immigration laws through a variety of separate bills.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the lead author of the comprehensive Senate immigration bill, signaled Wednesday that Democrats would not be willing to join in such an effort.
He threatened to force Republicans to pay the price in the presidential election if they do agree to pass a reform by year’s end.
He said House Republicans have a narrow window between early June and the August recess to act.
“I am saying that if Speaker [John] Boehner [Ohio], [House Majority] Leader [Eric] Cantor [Va.], and other Republican leaders refuse to schedule a vote on immigration reform during this window, it will not pass until 2017 at the earliest,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“I believe it would then pass in 2017 after Republicans take a shellacking in the Presidential election,” he added.
Schumer said in a subsequent interview that the reform effort would be dead because the conservative political dynamics of the 2016 presidential primary would pull the GOP too far to the right to pass immigration in 2015 or 2016.
Rubio, who is mulling a White House bid, disputed Schumer’s analysis.
“I don’t agree with that,” he said. “I understand there’s some conventional wisdom out there in that regard but I don’t believe that to be true.”
He said he does not plan to walk away from immigration reform in the next Congress, even if he pursues a presidential bid.
Rubio said he would support an immigration reform push in 2015 as a piecemeal process, the same approach endorsed by Cornyn and House Republican leaders.
“What I do think is possible is to make progress on it in a sequential way that builds on each bill that we pass,” he said.
But Rubio said he doesn’t see himself supporting a bill that tries to overhaul the entire immigration system in one swoop.
“I don’t think a comprehensive bill can pass. I don’t want to us to waste another two years on an approach that has no chance of passing,” he said. “This idea that immigration reform means you have to all do it in one bill is ridiculous. It’s the reason why they haven’t succeeded doing anything on it.”