Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is roiling the Senate immigration debate by offering several amendments that could give him an edge in a future Republican presidential primary. Paul, who could square off against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the bill’s primary authors, in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, is taking aim at three of the most controversial areas of the bill, according to Senate aides familiar with the measures
His amendments puts pressure on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who says he wants to pass immigration reform but has not yet committed to voting for the 1,075-page Senate bill. McConnell faces reelection in 2014; while he does not yet have a credible primary challenger, he has sought to shore up his right flank by maintaining close ties to Paul.
Paul’s most ambitious proposal would eliminate the pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants and lift the caps on guest workers. It would provide immigrant workers to employers who can demonstrate need, but immigrants would have to apply for legal permanent residency and citizenship through the existing lines of their native countries. Paul is expected to file that amendment this week.
Another measure, Paul’s “Trust but Verify” amendment, would give Congress — and not Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — ultimate authority on deciding when the southern border is secure. Under this plan, immigration reform would not proceed until Congress votes on whether several criteria have been met. These objectives would include the completion of a comprehensive system to track visa entries and exits at all points of entry — not just air and sea ports as mandated by the broader bill — and law enforcement achieving a 95 percent apprehension rate of illegal entrants and the Census Bureau would have to show an insignificant flow of new immigrants entering the country illegally. Paul has already filed this amendment.
Other Republican members of the Gang of Eight have opposed giving Congress authority to vote on whether border security metrics have been met because they fear it would politicize the process. Democrats warn that opponents of the path to citizenship would use it to delay permanent legal residency for millions of immigrants.
In adding his own amendments to the bill, Sen. Paul has shifted the spotlight to what other major senators will decide. Sen. Rubio is uncommitted on the issue. He said he was not firmly for, or against, giving Congress future authority on assessing border security. His focus, however, is putting a specific border security plan in the Senate bill so that colleagues have a sense of firm metrics being put in place and Napolitano has less discretion.
Robert Haus, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) 2012 presidential campaign, said Paul’s amendment would give him a political edge. “Yes, I think it probably does. Whether or not that early advantage holds sway remains to be seen,” Haus said. “It at least gives him a calling card and talking point to start some of that early work. I don’t know how it functionally works to have Congress certify. Congress can barely tie its own shoelaces.” A spokesman for Rubio declined to comment on Paul’s amendments. Rubio could be helped, however, by Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) strong support for the bill.
“There are conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and independents who just want to get this past us, find a solution and move on to some of the other issues Republicans really care about,” said Byars, who has helped raised money for Rubio. But Deace said many conservatives fear GOP leaders are alienating their party’s base to ingratiate themselves with Hispanics, who make up a small percentage of the electorate and tend to vote for Democrats.
Paul’s last amendment is designed to ensure that immigrants with provisional legal status do not vote. It will likely have resonance in the wake of Monday’s Supreme Court decision striking down an Arizona law requiring people to prove their citizenship when registering to vote. Paul’s proposal would make federal election funding contingent on states checking voter rolls against visa databases to ensure people with provisional legal status are not voting along with citizens. Immigrants would be barred from receiving permanent legal status if they were to vote as registered provisional immigrants.
While Paul’s amendments strike a cord with the more conservative Republican base on immigration reform, the amendments appear to focus on issues that will delay rather than speed up the process for the bill to be passed, all while allowing him to gain more leverage with the more conservative core of voters. It remains to be seen whether these amendment proposals are merely posturing by Sen. Paul or whether they will continue the debate on the major issues of the pathway to citizenship and border security.