The 8 Senators Who Hold Immigration Reform in the Balance

National Journal

Last week, the Senate blocked gun-control legislation sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. The 54 senators who voted to advance the bill weren’t enough to overcome a filibuster, and the bill’s failure serves as a stark warning to the members of the so-called Gang of Eight: Don’t tick off senators whose votes are necessary to pass legislation through the Senate.

This week, it’s immigration reform that is in the spotlight. As with the gun-control legislation, the stakes are high. Immigration reform is a key agenda item for President Obama, but it’s also taken on added importance for Republicans who lost the Hispanic vote significantly in 2012. That’s a trend the party is hoping it can halt, with help from immigration-reform legislation.

The stakes are also high for one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016 who has sunk considerable political capital into fighting for the gang’s measure, appearing on the Sunday talk shows and on conservative talk radio to make his case. Unlike the gun-control bill, immigration reform has support from more Republicans, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona. 

Still, the legislation will be a tough sell to many Senate Republicans, even with Rubio's advocacy. Texas colleagues John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, for example, criticized the gang’s bill during Judiciary Committee hearings this week. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has opposed immigration reforms in the past but hasn't telegraphed his position on this bill yet, but made the list because supporting this bill would indicate a shift in orthodoxy. The bill is likely to pass through the Senate, but supporters want a strong showing—say, at least 70 votes—to give it the necessary momentum in the conservative-dominated House. So it's useful to look at the positioning of key conservative senators to get a sense of how the legislation is faring with the GOP base.

Here are eight senators we're watching closely.

(AP Photo)

John Cornyn, R-Texas, is the Senate minority whip and is facing reelection in 2014. While political handicappers rate his prospects at winning another term favorably, Cornyn doesn't want to face the nuisance of a primary challenge for supporting an immigration-reform bill. At the same time, the growing number of Latino voters in Texas makes immigration reform less of a clear-cut issue than it once was. At this week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Cornyn diplomatically praised the gang's work, but criticized the bill's approach to border security, arguing that the legislation would shift resources from some patrol sectors in Texas. He's also worried that "thousands of lawsuits" could frustrate the implementation of the bill, a concern he added in a coda to his opening remarks at the committee hearing this week. Cornyn says he's open to a debate over the issues, but what will be worth watching is whether Rubio can convert his openness into a bill that Cornyn clearly sees as flawed.

(LM Otero/AP)

Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has established himself as a leading voice for the conservative tea-party movement during his short tenure in the Senate. He won without support from the establishment in the 2012 primary, and isn't sensitive to elite public opinion. He opposes what he casts as a "deeply, deeply divisive" issue: the so-called path to citizenship. Proponents of the bill argue that people in the country illegally would not get a free pass and would have to wait before earning citizenship, but Cruz is not sold. “I would note that I don’t think there is any issue in this entire debate that is more divisive than a path to citizenship for those that are here illegally,” Cruz said this week, according to The Examiner. “In my view any bill that insists upon that, jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform bill." The question is will Cruz's opposition be loud—as it was during the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings and the gun-control debate—or more muted, out of respect to Rubio. If he takes up the anti-immigration mantle, he'll undoubtedly draw some 2016 presidential buzz.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Rand Paul, R-Ky., as NBC News observed, could be positioning himself to the right of Rubio, who helped craft the gang's plan, even though he's come out in favor of some immigration reform. Both Paul and Rubio are potential 2016 GOP presidential contenders. Paul, who earlier this year delivered an address calling for reform, is now pulling back because of the Boston attacks. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Paul showed flashes of caution. "We should not proceed until we understand the specific failure of our immigration system," he said, according to The Washington Post. His support or opposition could prove pivotal.

(Chet Susslin)

Mike Lee, R-Utah, earned the mantle of tea-party hero when he defeated incumbent Republican Robert Bennett in 2010. So, the fact that his recent comments at the Heritage Foundation suggest he could be open to reform are a window on where the movement stands. Utah's Mormon population, while heavily Republican, is much more open to immigration liberalization than other comparable states. Lee said he's open to reform, according to Salt Lake's KSL.com. Even so, Lee made it clear that making sure the country's borders are secure is a top-of-the-list issue for him. If Rubio can convince Lee that the gang's legislation does that, it could make passage likelier. 

(AP Photo/Mike Wintroath)

Mark Pryor, D-Ark., doesn't have a Republican opponent yet in 2014, but his reelection prospects as a Democrat in conservative Arkansas mean he should expect stiff opposition. Already the conservative Club for Growth has aired an ad in Arkansas. That opposition also explains why it could be difficult for Pryor to back the gang's immigration-reform legislation, even more so if President Obama, who is unpopular in Arkansas, publicly lobbies for it. Pryor also sided with conservatives over the majority of his party on the recent background-check amendment sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, another sign of the political pressure he faces at home.

(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

Tim Scott, R-S.C., is wrestling with which path to choose: that of his hard-line conservative predecessor Jim DeMint, whose seat Scott inherited when DeMint left to head up the Heritage Foundation, or that of his current colleague Lindsey Graham, who helped write the gang's bill, and who put the world on notice this week when he said, "I'm going to fight for this bill. If you've got a better idea, bring it on," according to NBC News.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Pat Toomey, R-Pa., suffered a political defeat when his fellow Republicans successfully filibustered his background-check amendment last week. Because he expended so much political capital fighting for his legislation, which ultimately died, it might be hard for him to cross the conservative base so soon after such a failure. That said, Pennsylvania, while it has conservative pockets, votes reliably Democratic in national elections. That explains why Toomey had the political latitude to champion a gun-control measure that the National Rifle Association hated.

Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., like Toomey, endured a political loss when 46 of his colleagues blocked his legislation. And like Toomey, Manchin faced a similar dynamic, only turned on its head. While Toomey is a conservative in a blue state, Manchin is a Democrat in a red state. What does the gun-control vote have to do with immigration? Manchin himself suggested that the prospect of a series of difficult votes, first on gun control and soon on immigration, would prove politically fraught. "They'll evaluate it and say, 'I can take on one fight, but do I need to take on two or three?' " Manchin said at a breakfast with reporters, USA Today reported.

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