Immigration Reform 2013: Will Dems Give Up the Same-Sex Amendment to Save Reform?


The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is currently hearing debate on the so-called Gang of 8 immigration bill, has an uphill battle. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) heads up the committee. He, nine other Democrats, and eight Republicans are charged with marking-up the 867-page bill. They also have the tenuous responsibility of going through the 300 proposed amendments. The majority of the amendments have been tacked onto the bill by Republicans, many of which are aimed at very heart of reform. These amendments are often called "poison pills." While Democrats are quick to point to Republicans for trying to kill the bill, Leahy has introduced an amendment which might do all the work for them. 

The amendment would allow U.S. citizens in long-term same-sex relationships to sponsor foreign partners. Heterosexual couples where one partner is a U.S. citizen, are able to use that citizenship to assist their spouse in obtaining a green card. The Defense of Marriage Act prohibits same-sex couples from having that same benefit. The amendment was sponsored by Leahy and though it shouldn’t be controversial, it is. So controversial that it could kill the bill. All Republican members of the Gang of 8 have said they will sink the bill if the amendment is approved. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has said that the bill requires bipartisanship support and that provision will not have it. He added that, “a lot of the coalitions that are behind it will go away.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has called the amendment, “the most serious threat to bipartisan immigration reform.”  

Two ranking Democrats from the Gang of 8 are extremely reluctant to speak about how they would vote on the amendment. Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) would rather not see the amendment in the final form of the bill introduced on the Senate floor. Durbin would prefer to wait for the Supreme Court to pass down its decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. While neither Democrat wants to anger their base, each are cognizant of the consequences of including such an amendment. Some on the left have even gone so far as to suggest that the amendment was purposefully tacked onto the bill by proponents of organized labor.

Are these people right in thinking that this is just a ploy by those on the left to sink the bill? Well, according to a group called Immigration Equality, Leahy’s amendment would affect 35,000-45,000 gay couples. That doesn’t exactly seem like proof of a spurious plot to kill the bill, so what else can we look at? Journalist Ruben Navrette points to the fact that Leahy was the one who proposed the amendment. He comes to the conclusion that as the Senator from Vermont with a Latino population at under 2%, he is unlikely to face any political fallout from introducing a "poison pill" amendment. That still doesn’t seem like anything definitive as Leahy has been an advocate for gay rights for many years. The Human Rights Council and many others who have signaled support for the bill hardly seem to doing so for the purpose of backing organized labor. That doesn’t mean that Navrette doesn’t have a point about the delicate and difficult decision Democrats in the committee are now faced with. 

Republicans, already finding it difficult to support the bill in the first place, will find a convenient scapegoat in Leahy’s amendment. Ultimately, as chairman of the committee, Leahy will get to decide if he submits the amendment for markup. If he does, it will likely come late in the proceedings. This is truly where we will see pragmatic politics at play. If it really comes down to supporting this amendment or passing comprehensive immigration reform, this amendment will be sidelined. Though President Obama has signaled support for the amendment, don’t expect him to spend any political capital on it. The president has stayed out of virtually all of the immigration reform proceedings because he knows his interjection isn’t popular, nor desired. Any attempt made by him, or his administration to do anything other than signal support, will hurt the chances of immigration reform. So don't wait for any executive orders or proclamations on this issue.

The committee is expected to consider the bill until Congress breaks for Memorial Day recess. Once the the bill is introduced onto the Senate floor all 100 senators will have a chance to propose their own amendments. This might be another place where Leahy proposes the same-sex green card amendment. This is the first attempt Congress has made to overhaul immigration since 1986. In the next few weeks you can expect every technicality to be debated, amendments that both parties hold dear will be struck down in lieu of putting forth a bill that the committee believes can obtain broad bipartisanship support. Where the Leahy amendment will end up in all of this just isn’t known.