Report: Bipartisan Senate group nearing agreement on comprehensive immigration proposal

Who’s in the group? Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Bob Menendez, Marco Rubio and, er, Lindsey Graham and McCain. So you know this bill will be solid.

Before you start grumbling, look: The big cave on amnesty is coming. It’s a fait accompli. Make peace with it. Latino voters didn’t cost the GOP the election this time but the demographics are such that that won’t always be true if Republicans continue to lose the group by 70/30 or 75/25 margins. Now is the time to show some goodwill by legalizing millions of illegal immigrants and adding them, eventually, to the voter rolls. Maybe then we’ll only lose 60/40.

Their timetable would aim for a bill to be written by March or April and potentially considered for final passage in the Senate as early as the summer. Proponents believe adoption in the GOP-held House would be made easier with a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate.

The working group’s principles would address stricter border control, better employer verification of workers’ immigration status, new visas for temporary agriculture workers and expanding the number of visas available for skilled engineers. They would also include a call to help young people who were brought to the country illegally as children by their parents become citizens and to normalize the status of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

But obstacles abound. For instance, Rubio has said he believes immigrants who came to the country illegally should be able to earn a work permit. But he has said they should be required to seek citizenship through existing avenues, and only after those who have come to the country legally.

Democrats and immigration advocates fear that approach could result in wait-times stretching for decades, creating a class of permanent legal residents for whom the benefits of citizenship appear unattainable. They have pushed to create new pathways to citizenship specifically available to those who achieve legal residency as part a reform effort.

It is not yet clear if the Senate group will endorse a mechanism allowing such people to eventually become citizens — something Obama is expected to champion. Schumer said it would be “relatively detailed,” but would not “get down into the weeds.”

A source close to Rubio said he joined the group in December at the request of other members only after they agreed their effort would line up with his own principles for reform, which he outlined in an interview with the Wall Street Journal three weeks ago.

Rubio wants to do this in a series of smaller bills but Democrats don’t like that idea any more than they like the idea of delayed citizenship. Smaller bills might slow the legalization process by making amnesty contingent upon the achievement of quantifiable successes in reducing illegal immigration (which has already shrunk considerably thanks to the recession) and improving workplace enforcement. Mark Krikorian prefers the piecemeal approach too — e.g., a limited DREAM amnesty if and only if e-Verify is fully implemented — but thinks we’re going to get rolled on the citizenship process, even if the Senate ends up opting for Rubio’s “existing avenues” approach:

Also on Levin’s show, Senator Rubio clarified his “path to citizenship.” The illegals would all get amnesty immediately, of course, but they would only have a renewable work visa. After a time, they’d be able to apply for green cards (that could lead to citizenship) only through the existing immigration system by, say, marrying a citizen or what have you. Practically speaking, that would mean millions of the amnestied illegal aliens would remain in that work-visa status for the rest of their lives, creating a strong issue for Democrats: “Vote for us and we’ll end the Jim Crow immigration status the evil Republicans have imposed on you!” We’d lose Hispanic market share with that kind of approach.

Yeah, it’s impossible to imagine this process resulting in a situation where Democrats aren’t still demagoging Republicans over immigration. It’s too useful a weapon for them electorally; even Obama’s rhetoric, which usually sounds semi-exalted even when he’s accusing the GOP of wanting to starve grandma and see kindergarteners get shot, turns more overtly vicious when discussing this subject. The GOP would have to rubber-stamp whatever Democrats proposed in order to get off scot free, and even then some Dems would grumble. You don’t give up a 70/30 advantage with one of the country’s fastest growing demographics lightly. And if that wasn’t enough inducement for Republicans to compromise, recent polls are on Democrats’ side here. CNN found that a majority now think the government’s priority should be finding a way to let illegals become legal residents; a few years ago, that majority prioritized deportation. An AP poll found more than six in 10 Americans now support eventual citizenship for illegals, including 53 percent of Republicans. Even the national exit poll taken on election day found 65 percent support for letting illegals apply at some point for “legal status.” Democrats would love to see the GOP block this, and the Republican leadership knows it.

It’s Friday and we need a laugh so here’s a reminder that McCain pretended to be a border hawk during his 2010 Senate reelection campaign. Exit question: When was the last time a senator on either side held as much sway over his caucus on a major issue as Rubio now does over the GOP on this? It’s impossible to imagine Republicans filibustering a bill if he supports it. He has the power to all but guarantee that something will pass the Senate.