Senate begins immigration debate, Alaska’s senators in the middle

Protestors rally for immigration reform Sept. 7, 2012. (Photo courtesy NCLR)

Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wants the Senate to pass its bill by the Fourth of July recess. He promised an open amendment process, complete with votes on all sorts of tweaks to the bill. Rest assured, many of those amendments will be laced with politics.

Texas Senator John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the chamber, introduced an amendment that infuriated some Republicans and Democrats who wrote the bill. It would effectively require 100% border enforcement before anyone can gain legal status.

Tuesday afternoon a reporter asked Cornyn if he’d rewrite his bill to appease other senators.

“No. If by that you mean making it ineffective, no,” he said with a laugh.

Reid called Cornyn’s amendment poisonous. That’s not exactly a collegial way to start the conversation. Still, with two procedural votes, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to begin debate.

A group of eight senators – four Republican, four Democrat – wrote the legislation.

President Barack Obama strongly supports the plan. In his weekly address he said Congress has addressed bits and pieces of the issue over the past few years, but it has the chance to pass something much larger.

“It’s a compromise. Nobody will get everything they want, not Democrats, not Republicans, not me,” he said in the recorded message. “But it is a bill that’s largely consistent with the principles I’ve repeatedly laid out for common sense immigration reform.”

Those include a path to citizenship that’s at least 12 years long for the millions of illegal immigrants in the country today, tougher penalties for employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers, and heightened protections at the borders.

The president said he wants Congress to deliver him a bill to sign by the end of summer:

“We know the opponents of reform are going to do everything they can to prevent that. They’ll try to stoke fear and create division. They’ll try to play politics with an issue that the vast majority of Americans want addressed.”

Both Alaska’s senators voted to move the bill forward. At the very least, six Republicans will need to vote for the bill for it to pass. Democrats will be hoping Senator Murkowski will vote with them; she voted to pass an overhaul in 2006.

And Senator Begich’s moves will be closely watched, too. He’s one of six senators up for reelection in 2014 in Republican states.

Both Murkowski and Begich said a major concern is making sure fish processors have the workforce they need.

Murkowski said people in the state remain divided over the J-1 visas – the work permits for foreigners who fill the processing plants.

“Well you’ve got folks in Kodiak for instance, that look at this and they want these local jobs for their folks,” she said after the second vote Tuesday. “So for them some of the seasonal workers coming in are more of a concern.”

The J-1 visa program expired last November, and Begich says fish processors are having trouble filling job openings this season.

Begich said he’s hopeful the new plan will lump those workers in with the so-called W-visa workers. W-visas will cover all sorts of low-skilled employees. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO joined up and crafted them.

“We think it will work, but we want to be clear that there’s no doubt it can be utilized,” Begich said.

Begich added if the Senate does not interpret W-visas to include J-1 permits, he’ll try and amend the bill.

There’s some optimism in the Capitol the Senate could pass a sweeping piece of legislation. Speaker of the House John Boehner said the president could have something to sign by the end of the year.

That’s later than the President is asking for.

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