Top Dems ready to buck beliefs to vote for immigration overhaul

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WASHINGTON — Sens. Richard Durbin and Charles Schumer, with long records of supporting labor unions, gay rights and gun restrictions, are ready to vote against these constituencies to win passage of an immigration law.

The second- and third-ranking Democrats in the chamber helped craft the bipartisan immigration bill the Senate will consider this week. They warn that attempts to amend the legislation for unions, gay-rights activists and gun control advocates could scuttle the most significant revision of U.S. immigration policy in a generation.

Without changes, it's expected to pass the Senate by July 4 while facing tougher opposition in the House.

"They're going to have to anger those constituencies and supporters and fellow Democrats at times," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice in Washington, a group promoting revisions to immigration law. "You don't make history playing it safe."

Gay-rights groups are urging Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to offer an amendment giving immigrants who are in same-sex marriages with U.S. citizens benefits equal to heterosexual couples. The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, is seeking changes to the bill aimed at ensuring that U.S. workers get the first crack at technology jobs.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wants to limit immigrants' access to guns, and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, is seeking to make it easier for immigrants to bring family members to the U.S.

All are changes that Durbin and Schumer substantively support. They're opposed by Republican members of the bipartisan group that drafted the bill, and if adopted, could choke off votes needed for passage.

"It's very painful," Durbin, in an interview at the Capitol, said of the prospect of having to oppose changes he'd like to support.

Still, he added, "I hope we don't freight this bill with issues that could derail it."

The Senate measure seeks to balance a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States -- a provision demanded by Democrats — with enough border security to satisfy Republicans.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, is working to craft an amendment to strengthen the bill's border-security benchmarks that he says is necessary to assure Republican votes — including his.

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said Monday that an amendment being crafted by Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, setting new border-security requirements before undocumented immigrants could become citizens, is "in line with the sorts of improvements" Rubio wants to see. Schumer has said Democrats would oppose changes to the benchmarks.

Heritage Action for America, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, today urged lawmakers to oppose the Senate measure, which it described as granting "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants.

Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group backed by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, announced it had bought almost $100,000 in print and online advertising to promote an "extreme makeover" of the Senate proposal.

For Democrats, who control the chamber, the amendment process could result in some challenging votes that pit long- held priorities against the success of the legislation.

Leahy hasn't said whether he will demand a vote on his proposal affecting same-sex couples. When the Judiciary Committee he leads considered the measure last month, Leahy withdrew the amendment, saying he didn't want to bog down the bill. The panel approved the legislation, 13-5, on May 21.

Stacey Long, director of public policy and government affairs at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said it was "beyond unfortunate" that the protections for same-sex couples Leahy is seeking weren't adopted by the panel.

"It was a disappointing moment when we realized that members who have typically been supportive of our issues didn't exercise some of the same leadership that we've seen them do previously," Long said in a phone interview. "So I guess it remains to be seen what will happen going forward."

When the Judiciary panel debated Leahy's proposal on same-sex marriage, Durbin said in his "heart of hearts" that he believed it was the "right and just thing."

"But I believe this is the wrong moment and this is the wrong bill," he said then.

For his part, Schumer said at the time that opposing the amendment would be "one of the most excruciatingly difficult decisions" of his political career.

Blumenthal, whose home state was the site of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 children and six adults were killed, said he'd spoken to Durbin and Schumer about offering amendments to limit immigrants' access to guns.

Blumenthal said Durbin and Schumer, who were advocates of a failed effort this year in the Senate to expand background checks for gun purchasers, are "sympathetic" to his efforts. Still, he said they're concerned that reviving the gun debate could damage the immigration bill's prospects.

"We're doing our best to avoid diverting the central purpose of this bill, which is immigration reform, into other very worthy areas," Durbin said when asked about the gun proposals.

One of Blumenthal's amendments would prohibit immigrants who aren't permanent legal residents from buying or possessing firearms. Another would require the U.S. attorney general to notify the Homeland Security secretary when an immigrant gun purchaser fails a background check or when a non-permanent resident buys two or more pistols or revolvers within five days.

"There are some common-sense gun-violence control measures that apply very logically and reasonably to the immigration bill," Blumenthal, a Democrat, said in an interview at the Capitol. "I am very seriously considering offering them on the floor."

To win the support of Utah Republican Orrin Hatch in the Judiciary Committee, Democrats struck a deal on a visa program for high-skilled workers. It included lifting a requirement that companies look for a U.S. worker before hiring a foreign visa holder for all businesses except those whose workforce is more than 15 percent foreign.The agreement, sought by technology companies, was opposed by the AFL-CIO. The group's president, Richard Trumka, called the changes "unambiguous attacks on American workers."

Durbin, in particular, has advocated that protections for U.S. workers must be included in any changes to the high-skilled visa program.

AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said the group would press to reinstate some worker protections on the floor, including "creating an obligation that tech companies who find a qualified American worker would have to hire them rather than bring a less well-paid foreign worker."

Schumer and Durbin also may have to contend with lawmakers who aren't pleased with changes to the bill made by the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, is among those concerned with how the bill emerged from the committee. In an interview at the Capitol, he said he would work with the AFL-CIO and lawmakers "to come up with sensible guest-worker programs, which do not result in more unemployment for American workers."

A change Durbin and Schumer each said they wanted to support during the panel's consideration, and which could re- emerge on the Senate floor, is Hirono's proposal to allow the adult siblings or married children of immigrants to come to the U.S. in cases of "extreme hardship."

Religious groups have been pushing to make similar changes to promote family unification. That's a principle of immigration policy historically opposed by Republicans, who prefer merit-based systems.

Jen Smyers, associate director of immigration and refugee policy in the Washington office of Church World Service, a faith-based relief organization, said the group was "very disappointed" when Hirono's proposal was rejected by the Judiciary Committee.

"But we think there is an opportunity for it to be considered by the broader Senate, and that's what we're hoping for," she said.