McConnell sets stage for immigration concession

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed a modest amendment to the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill Tuesday, a move that could set the stage for a major concession by the Kentucky Republican and his party on the far-reaching and relatively unpopular bill.

Although Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate’s majority leader, called the amendment offered by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn a “poison pill,” a major opponent of the bill dismissed Reid’s description as posturing to help Republicans portray it as a major improvement to the bill.

Cornyn’s amendment, which McConnell promoted at a 2:15 press conference Tuesday, would require the Department of Homeland Security to declare it monitors 100 percent of the U.S. border with Mexico and has 90 percent “operational control” of the frontier.

The amendment does not require country-wide tracking of illegal immigrants who arrive on commercial airline flights. But its acceptance could allow the senators to end debate and pass the bill by July 4.

The amendment is “just political theater to provide cover for Republican congressmen who want to give the plutocracy what it wants… lowered wages and a morally righteous feeling,” Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research nonprofit that advocates reduction of both legal and illegal immigration, told The Daily Caller.

Krikorian’s analysis was bolstered by a statement from one of the eight senators who crafted the massive bill.

“Contrary to what is being said, it is not a poison pill,” Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona told The Daily Caller.

“There are a couple of points that are tough, but we’re working on it,” said Flake, who is one of the four GOP senators in the Gang of Eight, which is led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.

“We want to modify it … [and Cornyn] is trying to work on something that improves the bill,” Flake told TheDC a few minutes after McConnell, Cornyn and Reid spoke with reporters. “If he gets his amendment as it stands, he’ll work for the bill. and hopefully we can modify it [and] everybody can vote for it.”

The Senate voted this afternoon to begin formal floor debate on the bill. Shortly afterward, McConnell walked to a hallway press conference, where he spoke briefly about federal Internet surveillance programs before ceding the microphone to Cornyn.

By giving the microphone to Cornyn, McConnell publicly declined to help GOP opponents of the bill, including Sens. Chuck Grassley, Jeff Sessions, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Tim Scott, explain their opposition.

By opening the conference with a statement on the controversy over National Security Agency surveillance of American citizens, McConnell diverted reporters’ attention from the immigration issue and sidelined his earlier tough-sounding comments on the Senate floor. Those statements focused on the bill’s border-control and welfare-related provisions, not on unpopular provisions allowing an amnesty or an increased inflow of workers.

“Our continued failure to secure major portions of the border not only makes true immigration reform far more difficult; it presents an urgent threat to national security,” McConnell had said on the floor. ”Some have also criticized this bill for its cost to taxpayers… Those who were here illegally shouldn’t have their unlawful status rewarded with benefits and tax credits,” declared McConnell, who faces Kentucky voters — a majority of whom oppose the bill according to a recent poll — in 2014.

After his introduction by McConnell, Cornyn used his time at the microphone to tout his amendment.

“I can’t think of a more appropriate topic for Congress to engage in than to fix our broken immigration system, both to improve and streamline our legal immigration system, but … also to deal with illegal immigration system,” he said.

The Senate bill provides an amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants, and gives residency to 20 million foreigners by 2014. It also grants many new legal rights to future illegal immigrants, and allows business to bring in more than 10 million university-level guest-workers in a decade.

The guest-worker visas last for up to seven years, so the bill will allow a resident guest-worker population of more than 2.5 million university-trained workers. That’s equivalent to two years’ output of skilled graduates from American universities.

Reporters at the press conference did not ask about McConnell or Sessions about the economic impact of the bill, but did ask McConnell whether he would back an amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants.

“There are certainly conditions under which I could end up supporting an immigration bill,” McConnell told the reporters. “We’re going to find out in the course of the next three weeks whether this becomes a bill that I and others can be comfortable supporting.”

McConnell’s position isn’t final. The apparent support for Cornyn’s amendment may be posturing prior to rejecting industry’s demands. He’s played that role before in 2006 and 2007, when he helped defeat less-ambitious immigration bills.

After he finished the press conference, McConnell then walked a few steps to his office in the Capitol, refusing to answer questions from a reporter.

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