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As immigration fight approaches, Republicans watch Leahy

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Photo - FILE -- WASHINGTON, DC - Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is sworn in as President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, by Vice President Joseph Biden during a reenactment ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber, on December 18, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
FILE -- WASHINGTON, DC - Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is sworn in as President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, by Vice President Joseph Biden during a reenactment ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber, on December 18, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York,Politics Digest

Much attention has focused on Republican Marco Rubio as the most important player in the Senate effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform.  But it increasingly appears that title should belong to a Democrat, Patrick Leahy, who as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will decide whether the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill receives a fair hearing or not.

All around the Senate, Republicans are studying Leahy’s April 2 response to an earlier letter from Rubio in which the Florida senator noted that consideration of an immigration bill “cannot be rushed or done in secret.”  GOP lawmakers are not particularly concerned by Leahy’s answer to the “done in secret” charge; Leahy said the Judiciary Committee will handle the bill “in open session and streamed live” on the Internet.  (In the past, Leahy has also noted that it is Rubio’s group, the Gang of Eight, that is working in secret, and not the Judiciary Committee.)

But Republicans are seriously concerned by Leahy’s response to Rubio’s fear that the committee’s work on an immigration bill would be “rushed.”  In a letter to Republican Jeff Sessions, an opponent of the Gang of Eight plan, Leahy had suggested the committee has already held enough hearings on the immigration issue and would not hold any more hearings once the Gang releases its proposal.  In the letter to Rubio, though, Leahy appeared to soften a bit.

“The Judiciary Committee is capable of swift and thorough action,” he wrote.  “As soon as we have comprehensive immigration legislation to review, I will consider scheduling a hearing, in consultation with Senator Grassley, the Ranking Republican on Committee, and Senator Schumer, the Immigration Subcommittee Chair, to examine that proposal.  I will, however, remain mindful of the urgent need for us to actually get to the work of debating and considering amendments without unnecessary delay because this is an issue to which our attention is long overdue.  I am hopeful you recognize, as I do, that if we do not act quickly and decisively we will lose the opportunity we now have to fix our immigration system.”

The plain language of Leahy’s letter suggests that he might — might — be open to holding one — and only one — hearing on the immigration plan.  Republicans disagreed on whether the chairman’s new position was a hopeful gesture or not.

Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, called Leahy’s note a “good sign for immigration.”  The Rubio team believes that more than one hearing will be needed to cover a big and complex bill, but they see Leahy’s concession — from no hearing to maybe one hearing — as a step in the right direction.

Others are more skeptical.  One aide involved in the matter sees Leahy’s letter as a complete slap down of Rubio in which the chairman wouldn’t even agree to a single hearing, when Rubio had stressed the need for several.

The thing most Republicans have in common is that they don’t quite know what Leahy is thinking.  It seems entirely possible that in his letter to Sessions, Leahy intentionally took an extreme no-hearing position which he knew would be untenable.  Then, after the inevitable Republican protests, he announced that he might generously change his mind and grant the GOP a single hearing, allowing him to style himself as a conciliator while Republicans still get nearly nothing of what they demanded.

A Democratic aide says Leahy’s language was quite clear, and that it would be difficult for the chairman to be more specific than he was in the letter to Rubio, given that the Gang of Eight proposal has not been released.

Whatever the real story, all Republicans agree that it would be ludicrous to hold just one hearing on a bill that covers as much territory as the Gang of Eight proposal will cover.  One aide recently describe the still-secret bill as a bid to “create a new guest worker program, new border security protocols, new interior enforcement protocols, change worksite rules, future flow of immigrants, family migration, every category of visas, high-skill workers, low-skill workers, an entry system, an exit system, [and] a tracking system…”  That is a lot of legislation.  It will require much consideration and debate — apparently far more than the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to give.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner