Dem committee chair to Rubio: Okay, I'll ... consider holding a hearing on immigration

Is this progress or a runaround? Rubio wrote to Pat Leahy last weekend to urge him not to let the Judiciary Committee rubber-stamp the Gang of Eight’s bill. Democrats want to rush it through, knowing that the longer it ends up being attacked on the Senate floor, the greater the chance the fragile coalitions that support it right now might fall apart. (Which reminds me: If, per Ted Cruz’s theory, Obama and the Dems secretly want to see this bill collapse before the midterms, why are they eager to rush it through? Slow-walking the bill increases the odds of failure substantially.) Rubio, wisely, senses that there’ll be a backlash on the right if the bill passes through shady procedures, so he’s demanding a slowdown. The key bit in his letter to Leahy:

While you and your colleagues on the Judiciary Committee will agree on the details, I respectfully suggest that such a process must begin with a careful examination in the Committee including: hearings that explore multiple perspectives on the scope of the problems we face and the efficacy of the solutions we propose, markups in which a broad range of amendments can be considered, and a robust floor debate. All of this, and any Conference Committee deliberations, should occur in the full view of the American people, broadcast on CSPAN, and streamed live on the internet.

I am aware that the Judiciary Committee, both under your leadership and under the leadership of your predecessors, has conducted a number of hearings related to immigration reform. I am certain that those hearings deepened your knowledge of these issues and will guide much of your work this Congress. But they cannot be a substitute for fresh hearings to consider specific legislation as part of a national conversation. You have said the well-meaning disagreements senators have about these issues should be part of “a discussion we need to have out in the open, in front of the American people.” I agree.

I cannot urge strongly enough that such a discussion start with meaningful hearings. Of particular importance is a full consideration of border security proposals, including testimony from border security experts, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and others. A key feature of our bipartisan approach has been an insistence on meeting border security and other enforcement triggers before unauthorized immigrants can apply for permanent residence. But the success of these triggers will require examining what the American taxpayer’s commitment must be in order to make this security plan a reality.

Note the plural: “Hearings.” It’s a complex issue with lots of moving parts. We need hearings on each of those parts to improve the bill. Or do we? Here’s Leahy’s response, delivered just this afternoon:

While we have been waiting for legislative language this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee has already held several widely-attended hearings to examine the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform, including extensive testimony from the Secretary of Homeland Security. I hope these hearings have been useful as you have been developing your legislation.

The Judiciary Committee is capable of swift and thorough action. 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. Those who have been committed to this effort for decades are counting on us and expect the Senate to act thoughtfully and without further delay. I have little doubt we are capable of doing both and that our committee process will be, as is my practice, a full and open public debate of the legislation.

By this summer, I hope that all members of the Senate will be able to vote for or against comprehensive immigration reform and that each member will take into consideration the significant process that the Senate Judiciary Committee will have completed. The American people have grown tired of the endless filibusters that occur regularly in the Senate.

Note the singular: “A hearing,” and not even a guarantee of one. He’ll consider holding one, provided it doesn’t take too much time from the important business of rubber-stamping this bill. Which prompts the question, are Democrats playing hardball with Rubio here in hopes of getting him to cave on their speeded-up timeframe or in hopes of getting him to quit the Gang of Eight? I’ve speculated before that maybe the White House is trying to have its cake and eat it too by forcing Rubio out of the group at the eleventh hour so that he can claim no credit if/when it passes. He’s arguably the most formidable threat to Democratic control of the presidency; they don’t want to hand him any big victories that might jeopardize their lock on the Latino vote. (I don’t think it will, but O and his team wouldn’t want to risk it.) So here’s their big chance to feed him a poison pill that’ll make him quit the group — maybe he’ll get one hearing on the bill, and if he doesn’t like that, too bad.

Mickey Kaus thinks this is all posturing on Rubio’s part and that he’ll eventually quit the group to show that he’s willing to stand for principle, only to return when Democrats offer him a few new minor concessions so that he can claim “victory” in front of the conservative base. Could be. If you’re a liberal who wants this bill to pass, it’s in your interest to throw Rubio et al. a few bones. But I think it’s also possible that Rubio’s decided at this point that he doesn’t need the bill to pass in order to reap the political benefits from it. He’s already raised his national profile; he’s already proved that he Cares about immigration and is prepared to vote for a path to citizenship. Those two things will remain true even if the bill falls apart over work visas or a lack of hearings or border security or whatever. He’ll be hard for Democrats to demagogue in 2016 on this subject. And his team realizes it:

Three people who have discussed the matter with Rubio say the Florida senator is more willing than people think to pull the plug if it looks like conservative resistance is too strong. In particular, Rubio’s inner circle is concerned about the high-profile roles of Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom are Republicans that many conservatives distrust…

Either way, in the end, Rubio’s view has evolved from believing that he needed passage in order to be able to display a substantive accomplishment, to believing he will get credit for trying so aggressively. “What matters is the fight,” one top Republican strategist told us.

Right. Rubio has to triangulate here between outreach to left-leaning Latinos and outreach to amnesty-blocking conservatives. He’s already done the former. He has to be careful now with the latter not to be seen as another Graham. One way to do that is to put up a fuss about hearings when Graham himself is calling for expedited passage through Congress. Walking away now from a bad bill and a dubious process will do his future ambitions less harm than caving to Democratic demands in the interest of getting something through.

Update: Jeff Sessions calls Leahy’s letter to Rubio “alarming.” Quote: “Chairman Leahy’s mention of the possibility of maybe holding a single hearing is not a pledge of openness, but a confirmation of our suspicions. A sound committee process will take months—not the two-week timeframe Chairman Leahy has outlined…”

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