A proposal to expand gay rights is threatening to splinter a fragile, bipartisan agreement on immigration reform and kill a pillar of President Obama’s second-term agenda.
The Senate Gang of Eight, which crafted the immigration legislation, pledged to fight off “poison pill” amendments that would derail the bill. But one controversial proposal has already divided the group.
An amendment sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would allow U.S. citizens in long-term same-sex relationships to sponsor foreign partners for green cards.
It is potentially the most troublesome amendment of the more than 300 proposed changes that have been filed by members of the Judiciary panel.
Republican members of the Gang of Eight have stated bluntly to their Democratic partners that this will sink the bill if adopted during the committee’s deliberations.
The markup begins on Thursday, which is the one-year anniversary of Obama’s decision to embrace same-sex marriage.
“If that’s in the bill, that will kill the bill,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the gang. “This bill has got to get broad support to have a chance in the House, and with that provision it will not have broad support. A lot of the coalitions that are behind it will go away, and so I think that’s pretty much understood.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), a Democratic member of the group, declared Tuesday he is a strong supporter of the amendment but stopped short of saying how he would vote if it comes up in committee.
“I support it and hope we can find a way to resolve it. It’s a fair thing to do,” Durbin said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Reid lieutenant and another member of group, is a co-sponsor of legislation that served as the template for the amendment, the Uniting American Families Act.
Durbin and Schumer are members of the Judiciary Committee and either one could strike down Leahy’s amendment by voting with Republicans against it.
Democrats control 10 seats on the panel to the Republicans’ eight. The other Democratic members of the panel are expected to back the Leahy measure.
Leahy also filed an amendment exempting the immigration status of same-sex couples from restrictions established by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) if a state or another country recognizes their unions.
Durbin and Schumer are leading contenders to someday replace Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) as Democratic leader. They have come under pressure from prominent Democratic fundraisers and gay-rights advocates to support the Leahy legislation.
“It will be interesting how Durbin and Schumer vote because they have huge [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] constituencies and citizens in their states, and I can’t imagine them not supporting the Leahy amendment,” said David Mixner, a prominent Democratic fundraiser and political strategist. “Since when do we separate a whole group of American citizens and say, ‘These rights apply to everyone, but not LGBT citizens.’”
Mixner said it would be a “moral outrage” if the Senate passed immigration legislation that discriminated against same-sex couples.
Leahy is one of the biggest allies of gay-rights advocates, who do not want him to succumb to colleagues who would prefer the amendment not come up for a vote.
“Protecting bi-national same-sex couples is critical in moving immigration reform forward in an inclusive way,” said Allison Herwitt, legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign, which supports equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Herwitt noted that Durbin and Schumer have given little indication how they will vote.
“Durbin and Schumer believe they are in a tough political situation,” she said.
Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said Thursday’s markup will be an early test for the Gang of Eight’s unity.
“We’ll see pretty early on [Thursday] what the mood is and what the vibe is and whether the Gang of Eight is working in sync or not. That will make a big difference in what amendments get through,” Kelley said.
Gay-rights advocates said Wednesday they didn’t know when Leahy will offer his amendment to require equal treatment for same-sex couples. One source predicted it would come relatively late in the markup, which is expected to span a couple of weeks.
Durbin said even if Leahy’s amendment does not pass in committee, the Supreme Court will soon address discrimination against same-sex couples. The high court is deciding challenges to California’s Proposition 8, which limits marriage to heterosexual couples, and to DOMA, which restricts federal benefits to heterosexual marriages.
“If they reach a decision while we’re in the process of markup, it may resolve the issue,” he said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay member of the upper chamber, pointed out that gay-rights advocates are impatient for progress.
“I feel very strongly we have to extend these protections for all,” she said. “With all the progress being made, we want to make progress on this too.”
Flake and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) are the two Republican members of the Gang of Eight on the Judiciary Committee. They will feel pressure from conservative activists to vote for Republican amendments to place restrictions on the pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has proposed moving the cutoff date for illegal immigrants eligible for legal status to 2009. The bill now puts the cutoff on Dec. 31, 2011.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel, has filed an amendment to keep illegal immigrants caught in deportation proceedings from applying for legal status.
Another Grassley amendment would require the Department of Homeland Security to declare it will place into deportation proceedings any illegal immigrants who fail to qualify for “registered provisional immigrant” status, which critics say would deter many illegal immigrants from applying for legal status.
Pro-immigrant advocates will push Democrats to support an amendment filed by Feinstein to move the cutoff date for eligibility to the date of the law’s enactment.
“It’s a very important change. The point of the legalization process is to wipe the slate clean,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice.
Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another member of the gang, said Feinstein’s proposal is a nonstarter.
“I disagree. It’s a carefully crafted compromise,” McCain said.
Graham warned it would provoke “a run on the border.”