Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's vow last week to put the immigration bill through the regular Senate process of committee hearings and floor amendments may sound inconsequential, but it marks a major shift for the Nevada Democrat.
In 2007, the last time the chamber took up immigration, Mr. Reid twice tried to shoehorn a bill through the chamber under tightly controlled rules that locked out most debate. He was rebuffed both times, and the measure ultimately imploded under the weight of a bipartisan filibuster.
"I look back in retrospect and say it was a mistake not to go through the committee process last time," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, one of Mr. Reid's top lieutenants, told reporters.
One week after a bipartisan group of eight senators announced that they had settled on a framework for an immigration bill, the issue has all but consumed Washington.
President Obama traveled to Las Vegas to give a speech blessing the framework and, most notably, did not draw any lines in the sand, which gives lawmakers some room to negotiate. Instead, Mr. Obama is putting his effort into one of his strengths by giving interviews to Spanish-language networks to try to drum up support.
On Capitol Hill, though, the first cracks have started to show in the gang over issues such as how to handle gay partners in the legal-immigration system, and how to decide when the border is secure enough to give illegal immigrants green cards, which is the key step on the path to citizenship.
Mr. Reid said that is part of the reason he will send the bill through the regular legislative order of committee work and full floor amendments.
In 2007, Mr. Reid kept a much tighter leash on the debate. Each time, he was met with a bipartisan filibuster from senators angered at the legislation itself and at the process being used.
This time, the Nevada Democrat wants to eliminate that procedural excuse.
"Once it gets to the floor, I have made a commitment — and I'm telling everyone here — we're going to have an amendment process. I don't know how long it will take, but we'll take a lot of time, because there will be a lot of important issues brought up," Mr. Reid told reporters. "We may have to have a number of votes on different amendments in a different number of procedural ways, but we're going to have legislation done in the Senate the way that it's supposed to be done."
Backing the move
An open process was welcomed by those who have been waiting for a bill to pass.
"It's a good sign, and it hardly ever happens these days," said Frank Sharry, executive director at America's Voice, an advocacy group. "This is going to be wild and wide open legislating. Bring your six-shooter and a lot of bullets, because this thing is going to be crazy."
More than any other bill in recent years, the immigration debate will be colored by the previous fight in 2007.
Back then, the bill was another grand bargain struck by what Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and ardent opponent, called "the Masters of the Universe."
Led by Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, they tried to fend off all amendments to preserve the core agreement of stiffer border security and a new legal-immigration system in exchange for legalization of illegal immigrants.
Mr. Kyl retired last year, and Kennedy passed away, leaving matters to Sens. John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake (who won Mr. Kyl's seat) from the GOP, and Mr. Schumer, joined by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, Robert Menendez and Michael F. Bennet on the Democratic side.
The 2007 bill had just enough for everyone to dislike, which helped prompt the bipartisan filibuster that blocked it.
It's unclear what this year's bill will look like because the "Gang of Eight" has produced only a five-page framework.
One key question is whether the Gang of Eight will feel obliged to stand together in defending its grand bargain against all amendments, or whether the lawmakers instead will be free to vote their consciences.
The last time, defending the bargain led to striking votes in which Mr. Kennedy, a labor union defender, voted against labor's wishes, and in which Mr. Kyl voted against stiffer enforcement provisions.
Mr. Sharry said he expects Mr. Sessions, who informally led the opposition in 2007, to try to offer some of those same enforcement amendments to try to divide supporters of the bill.
Indeed, a Republican Senate aide told The Washington Times that the Republicans will home in on security and enforcement amendments and said the bill "faces an uphill climb."
One of the groups that rallied voters to make phone calls, shutting down the Senate switchboard, has panned the latest effort.
"This is not a serious plan for comprehensive immigration reform; it is a comprehensive special-interest New Year's wish list, in which everyone gets something except the American people," said Rosemary Jenks, government relations director for Numbers USA. "Unfortunately, all Americans get is the bill, which they will have to pay with their jobs and their tax dollars."
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