Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), center, and other senators attend a news conference… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a key author of the bipartisan Senate immigration overhaul, is working on a proposal that would give Congress, not the Obama administration, the authority to devise a plan to bolster border security.
The Florida senator has long insisted that the bill's border security provisions are not strong enough to win significant Republican support. He plans to introduce his proposal as the legislation moves to the Senate floor late this week or next.
As the legislation is now written, the Department of Homeland Security would be required to develop a plan to achieve effective control of 90% of the border with Mexico before immigrants in the U.S. illegally would be allowed to gain permanent legal status. Rubio's emerging alternative would shift the responsibility for creating that plan to Congress.
"The problem is people do not trust this administration and the federal government in general to do the law," Rubio said during a recent interview on Fox News. "Maybe the solution is to actually have Congress write that plan for them."
Democrats are likely to look skeptically on any major border security changes in the bill, a delicately negotiated compromise that strengthens immigration enforcement while providing a route to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. But Democrats are also expected to try to accommodate Rubio to retain his support.
The bill is the most ambitious proposal to revamp immigration law in a generation; it would provide $4.5 billion for more drones, Border Patrol agents, fencing and other security measures on the southern border. Once a plan to control the border has been approved, immigrants could begin what for most would be a 10-year path to legal status. They would have to undergo background checks, pay fines and fees, and show they are financially stable. In 13 years, they could become citizens.
After clearing the Judiciary Committee, the bipartisan bill is headed to the full Senate. A similar measure has stalled in the House but is expected to be unveiled when lawmakers return to Washington this week.
Reopening the debate over border security is risky as any substantial changes to the bill could threaten the bipartisan agreement, which was crafted by four Democrats and four Republicans.
Additional border security amendments were approved in committee as Republicans pushed to toughen the measure. A key change was to expand the requirement for 90% control of the southern border to all sections, rather than just those with the heaviest volume of immigrants crossing into the country illegally.
For the bill to pass the narrowly divided Senate, picking up GOP votes will be essential. No Republican beyond the four who helped write it has endorsed the measure.
Having Congress assume control of a complex border security overhaul would be a sizable undertaking, but one that speaks directly to complaints from Republican senators that the bill cedes too much authority to the executive branch. Those concerns have been an ongoing theme of tea party activists during President Obama's administration.
At the same time, Rubio appears sensitive to Democratic objections that unrealistic border triggers would prevent immigrants from achieving legal status, and is trying to develop an acceptable approach.
Already, senators have tailored border security provisions to their liking. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) reached a compromise that would limit drones to within several miles of the border in her state to prevent snooping on such populated areas as San Diego, while allowing a broader surveillance zone preferred by Cornyn in Texas.
Rubio has met with Border Patrol officials in recent weeks to discuss his proposal, and his staff spent the weeklong Memorial Day recess working on revisions, sometimes in consultation with other senators, aides to the senator said.
The changes Rubio is considering draw from an approach suggested by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has indicated he is open to an immigration overhaul. Paul's views are influential with tea party conservatives, and his support could give the bill a substantial boost by persuading other Republicans to vote for it.
"If we can figure out a way to write a bill that ensures the border will be secure, I believe immigration reform will happen," Rubio said on Fox. "If we cannot do that, or fail to do that, I do not believe immigration reform can — or should — happen."