The Gang Reaches Across the Aisle as Senate Immigration Debate Kicks Off

As they try to sell the bill to skeptics, the Senate's immigration supporters are pitching it as a return to bipartisanship and regular order.

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Committee Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy listens as Senator Chuck Grassley speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee's markup for the immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., on May 9, 2013.

Near the end of the first day of Senate debate on a sweeping bill to overhaul U.S. immigration laws, one of the measure’s top immigration supporters hugged one of its most vocal foes.

Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the committee charged with debating and amending the bill, had been sparring for much of the day with Jeff Sessions, a Republican who opposes comprehensive reform. Sessions had been deriding the bill as profligate and porous, slamming it as “immediate amnesty” that would unseat American workers. But during a break in the slugfest, Leahy collared his conservative colleague and the two shared a private laugh.

The moment showcased a strategy. As they try to sell the bill to skeptics, immigration supporters are pitching the bill as a return to bipartisanship and regular order. In an attempt to parry criticism that immigration might be jammed through the Judiciary Committee in a hasty or partisan fashion, Democrats repeatedly reached across the aisle on the first of many long days that will be devoted this month to amending the 867-page bill.

(MORE: Immigration Bill Faces First Major Test)

The committee is composed of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, including two GOP members of the so-called Gang of Eight that crafted the package. With a clear majority, they could have mowed down each of the nearly 200 amendments Republicans offered, many of which would strike at the heart of the bill. Instead they adopted eight Republican amendments, mostly to stiffen border security. Six of those were offered by ostensible opponents of the bill, including one amendment by ranking member Charles Grassley of Iowa that would expand security across the entire southern border. Another Grassley amendment accepted by Democrats would require annual audits of the pool of money used to implement the law.

The majority of the markup was, as Leahy had promised, “productive and transparent.” The text of the legislation was posted online two weeks ago. Amendments have been available since the filing deadline Tuesday, and as the bill changed shape the results were updated on the committee’s website. “This is as open and democratic a process as anybody could ask for,” said Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Gang of Eight.

This being the Senate, it was anything but perfect. The members, arrayed around a horseshoe of tables in a hearing room jammed with immigration advocates wearing matching T-shirts, swapped sharp retorts from the opening statements. There was plenty of clock-killing grandstanding; the day had barely begun when Leahy snapped at Grassley for droning on too long. It took 90 minutes for the committee to reach a vote on the first amendment, an innocuous revision of typos and technical glitches in the bill. Four Republicans voted no.

(MORE: Four Additional Hurdles for Immigration Reform)

At one point, Sessions was forced to run damage control for Republican Gang of Eight member Lindsey Graham after the South Carolinian complained that “we can’t have everybody who lives in a hellhole coming to America.” By that point, senators had long since begun thumbing their smartphones and slipping out of the room for stretches, leaving aides as voting proxies. Over the course of the day a few senators, their brains fried by hours of technical jargon, accidentally voted the wrong way before catching their mistakes.

Few of the more than 300 amendments the Judiciary Committee will consider over the next several weeks hold much peril for the bill. With a solid majority, the measure’s supporters are assured of committee victory. Only one vote on the 18-member panel appears to be up for grabs: that of Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who has praised the bill’s authors but offered 24 amendments to reshape the legislation. For the Gang of the Eight, the challenge will be to stay united, and to preserve the core tenets of the bill while convincing teetering colleagues that it’s good enough to live with.

To the critics on the committee, they had a clear message. “Be constructive,” implored Schumer. “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.” It was also, Schumer added, the best hope “to break the bipartisan gridlock that has strangled the Senate, the Congress and the country.”

Which was probably why Leahy was buddying up with Sessions, who “has been very up front about his desire to kill the bill,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group. The Vermont Democrat, a head or two taller than the Alabaman, smiled as he wrapped a big arm around his opponent’s shoulder. It was a hug now, but it could easily turn into a headlock before the fight is over.

MORE: Immigration Reform’s First Big Test: The Boston Bombing