Immigration Reform Q&A with Senator Lindsey Graham

After the Senate voted last night to debate the Gang of Eight's comprehensive immigration reform bill, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham talks about what's next.

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J. Scott Applewhite / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham

Last night the Senate passed a procedural measure to begin debate and bring to the floor a comprehensive immigration reform bill, with only 15 senators—all Republicans—objecting. Senator Chuck Schumer, a member of the “Gang of Eight” which largely crafted and guided the bill, has predicted that the legislation will pass the Senate by July 4, and Tuesday the President urged Congress to pass the bill by the end of the summer. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the “Gang of Eight” and a key Republican backer of the reform effort, spoke with reporters on Capitol Hill about the recent developments on the bill.

On the President’s role:

The President’s tone and engagement has been very helpful to the bill. I am very pleased with the role that the president’s played. I can’t ask for more cooperation than he’s given here.

What do you think of the Cornyn Amendment, which allows a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants so long as the U.S. maintains at least a 90% apprehension rate along the Southern border?

The “Gang of Eight” is trying to grow the boat. We’re talking to people trying to figure out what their concerns are. We’re listening to our colleagues. I’m all for border security but here are a couple of things that would break the bill apart: if it becomes unaffordable. Sen. [John] Cornyn (R-Tex.) is trying to improve border security, I appreciate that, but we can’t afford a $25 billion addition as it breaks the bank and it makes the bill not deficit neutral and it’s more than the market will bear. If you want to have a new trigger on the pathway to citizenship regarding border security it has to be practical and achievable.

[Read Sen. Cornyn’s RESULTS Amendment here]

But it seems popular among the GOP conference…

Well, you know we think sequestration is a good thing, and then we’re going to throw money at the border, we’re a little schizophrenic here. The bottom line is I think we can improve border security, but it’s gotta be paid for; it’s gotta be affordable.

But when it comes with additional new triggers, the lack of trust is real. Here’s the problem for our Democratic colleagues: when you say 90% operational control for the border, it wouldn’t be hard to envision a Republican-controlled wing of Congress where they undercut the ability to get to 90% with the lack of funding. I don’t trust our Democratic colleagues to deliver a guest-worker program that gives legalization first and then talks to me later about decreasing illegal immigration. I wouldn’t do that because I lost my leverage. It’s all about leverage.

There’s a way to take Sen. Cornyn’s proposal and make it more affordable and make it more practical and get bipartisan support.

So is a trigger unacceptable?

Not when it’s deemed in the eyes of our Democratic colleagues to be subject to political manipulation or physically unachievable.

On the politics:

We need a bill because our immigration system is so broken. But politically, if the bill fails and Republicans are blamed in the eyes of the public for not being practical it makes it virtually impossible for us to win the White House in 2016. But I’m not looking at if from that point of view as much as we need to solve the problem. Our Democratic colleagues, they proposed immigration reform in 2009 and they didn’t deliver so they need to step up and deliver.

Is there an impact on the 2014 congressional races?

It’s more a presidential issue. The House politics aren’t effected too much by demographics at the moment. Senate a little more so, the White House dramatically. If you want to be a congressional party, fine, but I’d like to be a part of the party that can also win the White House.

What would it mean if you only got 60 cloture votes today?

It would be bad. If we get 61 votes, good luck getting it through the House. If we get only a handful of [Senate] Republicans I think it dies in the House, so it’s imperative that we get close to half our conference not just today but at the end of the day.

So are you optimistic it’s going to pass?

Yes, because it’s a good bill that can be made better, and from a political point of view, I think most Republicans understand that we’ve dug a hole and we need to get this immigration issue off the table and behind us. And if we don’t, we understand things will be bad.

What does South Carolina think?

Compared to last time [in 2007] it’s radically different. I think people back home understand that we’ve got to be practical. Not everybody but most people back home get what I’m rying to do.