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Byron York: Democrats set to jam immigration reform through Senate

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Politics,Byron York,Politics Digest

Given the enormity of the changes that would result from comprehensive immigration reform, Senate Democrats wouldn't try to rush a bill through the Judiciary Committee before the public gets a chance to know what's in it -- would they?

In the past few days, even though proposed reform legislation from the so-called Gang of Eight hasn't even been written, there have been strong indications that that's exactly what Democrats intend to do.

More than a week ago, most of the Republican members of the committee wrote a letter to Chairman Patrick Leahy asking that the panel take its time considering a reform proposal. It took years, and a hundred hearings, and hundreds of witnesses, to reach an agreement when reform was last passed in the 1980s, the senators argued. This time, the committee shouldn't hurry a bill through committee in a few weeks.

Among other requests, the GOP senators asked for the chance to question Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The Judiciary Committee's last Homeland Security oversight hearing was in April 2012, they noted, and Napolitano still hasn't answered follow-up questions from that session. Now, especially since Napolitano has clearly voiced her opposition to GOP border security demands, it seems logical that she would appear before the committee considering reform.

The Republican letter carried a certain amount of weight because it was signed by six of the eight GOP members of the committee: ranking member Charles Grassley, John Cornyn (the number-two Republican in the Senate), Orrin Hatch, Jeff Sessions, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz. The other two Republicans on the committee, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake, are part of the Gang of Eight.

If the GOP lawmakers hoped to receive a quiet, well-reasoned response from Leahy, they were certainly disappointed. In a letter to Sessions laced with pique, personal invective and an unmistakable air of fuggedaboudit, Leahy told committee Republicans what they can do with their concerns.

First, he complained that Sessions had not spoken to him directly. Then he accused Sessions of grandstanding for the press. And then he complained about the way Republicans treated Democrats when the GOP held the Senate majority before 2007. And that was just in the first paragraph.

More substantially, Leahy suggested the Judiciary Committee has already done enough talking about immigration reform. There were lots of hearings on the subject back in 2006, he said, and a few in the past couple of months. Although there is no bill to evaluate yet -- "I regret that we do not have a legislative proposal before us," Leahy said -- the chairman strongly suggested he sees little need for further discussion.

So when the Gang of Eight bill is finished, Leahy declared, it will be considered "with all deliberate speed." After it is introduced in committee, Republicans will be allowed to delay consideration by one week (a standard prerogative of the minority party). After that, there will be no more hearings, no extended discussion of the bill's provisions. Voting on amendments and then a final committee vote will soon follow.

"I hope it is not your intention to discredit the process we undertake in the Judiciary Committee before we begin," Leahy wrote Sessions. "Artificial delays, delays for delays' sake [have] tainted too much of the Senate's work over the last few years."

Leahy's timetable left Republicans slack-jawed. Said one GOP aide: "The suggestion that you are going 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, a tracking system, and on top of that consider the complex legal and economic concerns relating to legalizing an untold number of people who are currently here illegally ?-- the idea that you're going to do that in a couple of weeks is --" At that point, the aide stopped, unable to come up with a word to describe such an undertaking.

But Sessions didn't stop, declaring, "No member of Congress who believes in democratic procedure can acquiesce to the ramming through of a thousand-page bill that will dramatically and directly impact the taxes, wages, and security of our constituents."

Will Leahy be able to push the bill as quickly as he hopes? It's not clear. Sen. Marco Rubio, working with the Gang of Eight, has often expressed his desire for full hearings and public consideration. But Democrats control the Senate, and if Leahy wants to fast-track a bill through his committee, and is willing to use all his powers, he can get what he wants.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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