A muted opposition to the bipartisan immigration overhaul found Sen. Jeff… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — — Moments before a group of eight senators unveiled a sweeping bipartisan immigration overhaul Thursday, a smaller group launched the GOP opposition.
Led by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Republican push-back emerged as a muted affair.
With just one other senator joining the afternoon event, the opponents created something of a lonely gang of two.
That is a stark contrast to the heated Republican rhetoric in 2007 that greeted the last attempt to reach a deal on comprehensive immigration reform, before the party's leaders made a strategic decision after the November election to embrace an issue that is a priority among the growing Latino electorate.
A broader soul-searching is underway within the ranks of the GOP, as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a top Republican presidential prospect, pushes his party toward the bipartisan bill.
The proposal formally presented Thursday would gird the Southern border with a double-layer fence and aerial drones and create a new guest worker program for farm laborers, gardeners, housekeepers and those with similar low-skill jobs. Employers would be required to verify the legal status of all workers.
In return, there would be a 13-year path to legal status, including citizenship, for 11 million people who entered the United States illegally or overstayed visas. They would have to pay fees, taxes and a $2,000 fine.
As the eight senators — four from each party — arrived for the bill's unveiling, a Who's Who of Washington power brokers stood behind them in unlikely alliance: a Chamber of Commerce executive, immigration advocates, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, anti-tax czar Grover Norquist and religious leaders allied with the GOP and the left.
"This is why we know we will succeed," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leader of the bipartisan efforts, gesturing to the assembled backers after the senators entered the room to cheers.
GOP leaders, sobered by Latino and other minority voters' stinging rebuke in November, have come around to immigration reform because they know the party must reach out beyond its base of mostly white voters, many in the party's Southern stronghold.
Republicans advocating for reform have tried to persuade conservative voters in religious, economic and strategic terms — even raising the threat that President Obama could take administrative action if Congress fails to act.
"Leaving things as they are — that's the real amnesty," Rubio said Thursday.
But that strategy memo has been lost on some party stalwarts, highlighting the intra-party feud in a GOP no longer easily characterized by conservative, tea party and establishment lines.
Another Republican lawmaker, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, has parted ways with fellow tea party favorite and Cuban American Rubio on this issue.
"There is passionate disagreement on a pathway to citizenship for those who are here illegally," Cruz said in an interview.
Flanked by a dozen law enforcement officials before the overhaul proposal was unveiled, Sessions and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said the immigration proposal is nothing short of an immediate amnesty for those who have broken the law.
"Like in 2007, the special interests were brought in — they've been engaged behind closed doors to help write the bill," Sessions said. "Like 2007, this bill is amnesty before enforcement."
But this go-around is already different from that one.
As Sessions and Vitter were speaking, Rubio's office was emailing the latest installment of its "Truth vs. Myth" series, taking Vitter to task for an earlier assertion that immigrants would face few obstacles in achieving legal status — an unusual display of party disagreement.
The bill faces its first committee hearing on Friday, and the eight senators have vowed to stick together to fend off any challenges that might doom it.