Senate Gang of Eight: Immigration Is "Ours To Lose"

PHOTO: From left, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. smile during a news conference on immigration reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 18, 2013.AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
From left, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. smile during a news conference on immigration reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 18, 2013.

The Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" oozed confidence on Thursday that they could deliver on their promise to pass the most significant immigration bill in a generation.

Opposition has begun to materialize against the proposal, which beefs up border security while providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But leaders of the group of four Democrats and four Republicans asserted they could overcome those obstacles and guide their bill through a Congress that has been plagued by gridlock.

"I think the majority of people in both caucuses really want to get this done," Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), one of the group's top Democrats, said at a press conference on Capitol Hill. "I believe that this is ours to lose."

Organizers gathered over 20 leaders from business, labor, religious and civil rights groups in order to display broad support for their plan. In an unlikely pairing, renowned anti-tax activist Grover Norquist stood alongside AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the leader of the nation's largest labor coalition. Senators from both parties yukked it up with jokes throughout the hour-long affair.

But navigating the bill through Congress will be no laughing matter. A gun-control measure with strong public support just died in the Senate this week. And opponents of the immigration bill have begun to organize. Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and David Vitter (R-La.), two long-time immigration foes, held a dueling press conference in an office building across the street.

"Like 2007, this bill is amnesty before enforcement, it's immediate legality with the promise of enforcement," said Sessions.

But senators in the group disputed that characterization. They stressed that their bill requires that border security and interior enforcement plans must be submitted before the undocumented can legalize. The plans must then be put into place before they can earn full citizenship. The path to citizenship would also force immigrants to undergo a criminal background check, pay fines and back taxes, and learn English.

"Half of my family would be excluded," joked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "This is no easy task."

Senators in the "Gang of Eight" conceded that their bill isn't perfect, and said they would accept changes through the amendment process. Schumer said that senators would have three weeks to read the bill and draft amendments before an official "mark up" of the legislation happens the first week in May.

But they drew a line in the sand, saying they would beat back amendments considered as "poison pills" -- those that could sink the bill entirely.

"We'll oppose only those amendments that are intended to prevent a comprehensive solution from passing," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the group's leading Republicans.

Graham threw down an ultimatum against opponents of the bill in both parties, saying that allowing more immigrants to come and work in the U.S. is critical to the long-term economic success of the country.

"This bill fixes the problem [of future illegal immigration], and I am going to fight for this bill," he said. "If you have a better idea, let me know. But if you want to kill it, we're going to have a talk about that.

"Tell me how it costs to have people paid under the table rolling around the country undocumented," he added later. "The only way America loses is to do nothing."

But conservative unrest over the bill has begun to grow. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has taken up the mantle of attempting to sell the bill to conservative critics and rebut arguments made against it. But he's met stiff resistance from voices on the right, such as talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who called the bill "suicide" for the GOP.

And Rubio had to swiftly respond this week to a false report that the immigration bill would offer free cell phones to immigrants, what detractors are calling "Marcophones."

On Thursday, Rubio cajoled conservatives to get on board with the bill.

"We all wish we didn't have this problem, but we do," he said. "And we have to fix it. Because leaving things the way they are, that's the real amnesty."

McCain said that the bill is the critical first move in a long process for the Republican Party to repair its broken image among Latino voters.

"A little straight talk here: Republicans have got to compete for the Hispanic vote," he said, using his old campaign catchphrase. "Passage of the legislation … doesn't gain a single vote from the Hispanic community. But what it does it puts us on the level where we can compete in the battle of ideas."

After the conference ended, Norquist predicted the Gang of Eight would succeed, arguing that opponents like Sessions and Vitter, who sunk the last immigration bill in 2007, have been marginalized.

Restrictionists, Norquist said, are people who merely "think of themselves as conservatives."

"If you're a Republican, you look at the business community wants it, the religious community wants it," he told reporters. "Who is the opposition? Who in the modern Reagan Republican Party is a no?"

While Congress has proved itself incapable recently of dealing with major pieces of legislation, the senators predicted this time would be different.

"I am convinced this issue will not fall victim to the usual partisan gridlock," Schumer said. "This bipartisan breakthrough offers a degree of hope."