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As Gang of Eight presents plan, both sides gear up for immigration debate

Jason Reed / Reuters

Members of the Senate's "Gang on Eight" are pictured during a news briefing on Capitol Hill, April 18, 2013. The senators (L-R) Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., John McCain, R-Ariz., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who crafted comprehensive legislation to overhaul the immigration system went to great lengths to balance the competing priorities of dozens of interest groups in an 844-page bill.

 

With dueling press conferences, fact-checking wars and talk radio bonanzas, the fight over immigration reform seemed to finally begin in earnest on Thursday as the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” formally presented their compromise legislation to overhaul the way immigrants come to live and work in the United States.

Appearing alongside allies from tax cut advocate Grover Norquist to AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, the legislators – four Republicans and four Democrats – formally unveiled their long-awaited proposal with promises of an open amendment process and pugnacious pledges to beat those would defeat it outright.

“I believe that this is ours to lose,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York and one of the chief authors of the legislation.

The lawmakers emphasized their plan includes border security plans that must be operational before full legalization for undocumented immigrants can proceed – an important criteria for many Republicans – as well as a path to citizenship with stringent requirements.

“This is a long pathway, it’s a tough pathway, but it’s an achievable pathway,” said Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey. 

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered an opening salvo to opponents already working to gut the legislation, as they did during a similar effort that collapsed in 2007.

“I’m going to fight for this bill,” he said.  “If you’ve got a better idea, bring it on. But if you want to kill it, we’re going to have a talk about that.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks on Capitol Hill Thursday as the Gang of Eight presents their immigration reform bill.

Lawmakers acknowledged that the process ahead for the bill will be an arduous one; others outside the group will begin the process of attempting to amend the bill later this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee and later on the Senate floor. 

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said that the group invites amendments to the legislation but will oppose “poison pill” amendments designed to gut the bill’s chances for passage. 

“We are committed to good changes in the bill,” he said. “This is not a final product. It’s not engraved in golden tablets. But we are also committed to vote against amendments or proposals or changes that would kill the bill. And there’s a difference there.” 

The group’s 844-page proposal creates the opportunity for qualified undocumented immigrants to apply for “Registered Provisional Immigrant” status – allowing them to live, travel and work legally in the United States – for a period of 10 years before becoming eligible to earn a green card; it also puts in place border security and employment verification “triggers” that must be met before that legalization process begins. The law also reorients the backlogged legal immigration system to favor more employment-based visas. 

The measure has buy-in from powerful players. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and high-tech companies like the provisions for more foreign workers, while advocates from the evangelical community believe its treatment of immigrants fulfills Biblical directives. Immigrant groups say the legislation will repair a long-broken system, and labor unions are optimistic about the citizenship provisions. After their bruising 2012 election loss, many GOP political professionals say the embrace of comprehensive reform is a political necessity.

Gesturing to the ideologically diverse crowd of reform advocates on stage behind him, Graham joked during the press conference that “we’re either going to get a bill or have a hell of a fight.” 

Proponents of reform are publicly and privately optimistic that the stars have finally aligned for their cause.  But, recalling the dissolution of a similar effort in 2007 under crushing pressure from opponents, they are also preparing for a bruising fight. 

As the Gang of Eight members were presenting the bill, opponents on the Hill were holding a dueling media briefing to decry it as an “amnesty before enforcement” plan that would endanger public safety. 

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a leading Senate opponent of the reform effort,  and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana argued that the bill is tantamount to “amnesty” that will foster a new wave of illegal immigration while borders go unprotected.

“You have not gotten the full story, the correct story, on this issue,” Sessions said. 

Key negotiator and high-profile conservative Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has launched a one-man media blitz to assuage the concerns of skeptical Republicans, with an aggressive schedule of interviews with talk radio hosts like Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh. 

 Rubio's office has also created a web site to address misinformation about the bill, like one rumor alleging that the legislative text contained a provision to give free phones to illegal immigrants. 

 In an interview with Limbaugh Thursday, Rubio emphasized the legislation’s “triggers” and argued that a stringently-regulated legalization process for undocumented immigrants will be a “vast improvement” over an existing system.

 He echoed that point during the press conference, with an appeal directly to “those who helped elect me in 2010.”

 "We all wish we didn’t have this problem but we do and we have to fix it," he said. "Because leave things the way they are, that’s the real amnesty.”  

Sen. Chuck Schumer delivers remarks on Capitol Hill Thursday as a group of senators unveiled a bipartisan immigration reform proposal.

Rubio’s involvement in the fragile negotiations was seen as key by proponents who believe his ability to bring conservatives to the table will be crucial to securing overwhelming support in the Senate.

Joking as he took the podium at the press conference, Rubio wryly nodded to past angst that he would walk away from the Gang of Eight talks.

“Actually, I changed my mind,” he cracked.

A grinning Schumer snapped back: “Not again! Once is enough.”

 

NBC's Kasie Hunt contributed.