Gang of Eight Talks Immigration Perks, Pitfalls, and Strategy

Here are four takeaways from a breakfast with Gang of Eight members Michael Bennet and Jeff Flake.

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Michael Bonfigli / Christian Science Monitor

Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.),left, speak at the Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel on June 12, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, two of the members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, discussed their  immigration-reform bill in a breakfast with reporters Wednesday, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. Here are TIME’s four key takeaways:

Border security and tax credits are big issues for Republicans.

Republican Senator John Cornyn’s amendment to the measure would require the Department of Homeland Security to hit a 90% apprehension rate along the southern border before the government can allow registered provisional immigrants (RPIs) to get lawful permanent resident, or “green card,” status. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called it a “poison pill.” It’s so unpopular among Democrats that Flake assessed that it is “unlikely he’ll get his amendment as it is.”

“What we’re not open to,” said Bennet, “Is using [the border-security] discussion as a pretext for making the pathway more difficult.”

Another issue: currently the legislation allows RPIs to be eligible for the earned income tax credit, widely viewed as a successful federal program that increases the wages of the working poor. “It’s part of the tax code, and these are people that are hurting, paying taxes. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me anyway to deny them [the tax credit],” said Bennet. “I’d rather they didn’t,” countered Flake. “It’s tough to justify.”

The President is playing his hand well.

Both senators say Obama’s hands-off approach has been helpful in the current partisan environment. “I think that he’s been constructive in this process allowing us to see how far we can get on the legislation,” said Bennet. “I think continuing to do that the way they’ve been would be very positive.”

Flake agrees. “I think he’s played the right role so far,” he said. “As a Republican, it would be more difficult were he out front and pushing this issue.”

Republicans know they need this bill.

Flake bemoaned that there is a “small group,” who want him to “get off immigration so we can just get on the scandals.” Still, he says, “a majority of Republicans” want immigration reform. “I believed for a long time that this issue makes it very difficult for Republicans to compete nationwide and state by state…it behooves us as Republicans to solve this issue.” Adds Flake: “It’s tough to compete for [Latinos’] vote or enter the discussion if they think they don’t like you.”

Passing a huge bipartisan bill would be a harbinger of future cooperation.

Bennet believes that if Congress and the President can agree on providing a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in America, it would be evidence that “the institution of the U.S. Congress is not in fact broken.” He says that it would show that Congress can compromise on large issues, including the “hard decisions when it comes to our debt and our deficit.”