GOP Not Backing Down on Border Security in Immigration Bill

A sign marks the border near San Ysidro, California. A sign marks the border near San Ysidro, California. United States Customs and Border Protection

Despite publicly rallying around an aggressive plan from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to secure the border, Republicans are privately conceding that staunch Democratic opposition means it likely doesn’t have the votes to pass.

But that doesn’t mean the issue goes down too.

Conservatives still want border-security improvements and are warning Democrats that not getting them could jeopardize the immigration-reform bill. At the very least, they argue, it means Democrats won’t come near the 70 votes some Democrats are both predicting and banking on to force the House into action on immigration.

GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a supporter of Cornyn’s amendment and key architect of the immigration bill, articulated the Republican position best. Asked Wednesday by Sean Hannity if he would oppose the bill if it did not completely secure the border, Rubio hedged, saying, “The thing I’m trying to avoid is all that ultimatum language because I think that undermines what we’re trying to do.”

“If the border-security elements of this bill are not in place, we’re wasting our time. This bill’s not going to pass,” he said. “If that doesn’t get in the bill I’m going to keep working to get it in.”

Already Rubio is working on his own border-security proposal that could sate some of the conservative appetite for tougher border controls. And other Republican senators are huddling behind closed doors to discuss how to tighten up the border.

Even Democrats acknowledge something will likely be added to the bill. “But it won’t be from Cornyn,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said.

Democrats went after Cornyn’s proposal—the first border-security amendment to surface during the debate—fast and hard. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called it a “poison pill,” and Sen. Chuck Schumer’s camp essentially called Cornyn a liar for saying that he and the New York Democrat had discussed his amendment.

Simply put, Democrats think Cornyn’s amendment is a pretext to oppose the bill, not an attempt to improve it.

And they aren’t altogether wrong.

If Cornyn’s amendment dies, “that’s all the cover conservatives in border states need to vote against the bill,” said a senior GOP Senate aide.

For his part, Cornyn told his colleagues in a closed-door meeting earlier this week that he’d vote for the immigration bill if his changes were approved.

Republicans are also playing a bit of longball in the face of Democratic reluctance to move the Senate legislation too far to the right—something Cornyn hinted at Wednesday. “My hope would be that we can improve the bill before it goes over to the House, because as you know, ultimately the endgame here is going to be a House-Senate conference committee that will produce the final outcome.”

Indeed, some Republicans see the Senate debate over Cornyn’s measure more as a chance to put down a marker with the aim of getting the amendment picked back up if there are negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate bills.

“Many realize this bill is not going anywhere in the House and are looking to what might work in the conference committee. Something along the lines of the Cornyn amendment could work well,” a Senate GOP aide said.

And while Cornyn’s amendment will likely fail, Republicans are closely watching how many votes it wins among Democrats. The more support they get, the more leverage they think they might have down the road.

In the meantime, the challenge of dealing with border security still looms over the Senate bill.

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