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Senate 'border surge' proposal casts spotlight on unlikely duo

The $46-billion border security alternative is giving new prominence to freshmen GOP Sens. John Hoeven and Bob Corker.

June 21, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Republican Sens. Bob Corker, center, and John Hoeven helped carve out an agreement to fortify border security as part of an immigration overhaul.
Republican Sens. Bob Corker, center, and John Hoeven helped carve out an… (Win McNamee, Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — One is a former farm state governor, one of only two mustachioed men in the Senate. The other is a self-made millionaire whose Southern drawl belies an impatience with the slow-moving Congress.

These two senators, an odd couple of sorts, have emerged as unlikely players in the immigration overhaul.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) quietly orchestrated the "border surge," a bipartisan compromise that may bring enough Republican support next week to pass a sweeping immigration overhaul — and its path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in this country without legal status.

Neither man quite expected for this to be their crowning legislative achievement.

The North Dakotan and the Tennessean are not regular visitors to the Southern border with Mexico. Hoeven's wife has Mexican ancestry, but the two senators represent states that are not among those with historically large immigrant populations.

Both former chief executives and relative newcomers to the Senate, they are among a crop of legislators who tire easily of the partisan gamesmanship of Washington and the dismally low public opinion of Congress. They say they ran for office to fix problems, and don't view compromise as a dirty word.

Their $46-billion border security alternative, poised for adoption by the Senate, elevates the previously lesser-known duo to a newfound prominence.

"Americans want immigration reform — of that there is no doubt," Hoeven said Friday as the two men introduced their legislation on the Senate floor. "But they want us to get it right."

Corker said he was more proud of the work he had done this week than anything else since he came to the Senate six years ago.

"This will affect people. This one is real," Corker said, choking up as he spoke afterward. "People's lives will be changed if we pass this."

Even though the Senate can be a particularly clubby chamber of 100 members, senators often do not know one another well.

Hoeven and Corker had rarely worked together — Corker, a former construction company owner and Chattanooga mayor, spent his time on the banking and foreign relations committees; Hoeven, a governor for 10 years in an oil-rich state before coming to the Senate in 2011, focused on agriculture and energy resources.

But at the party luncheons, hot buffets served most weekdays in the ornate meeting rooms near the Senate chamber, they found a common thread in their desire to bridge the partisan divide and engineer a solution to the immigration puzzle.

A couple of weeks ago, they started talking — with each other, and with other Republican senators and those in the bipartisan group that crafted the overhaul.

Republicans needed a guarantee that borders would be secure before immigrants could gain legal status. Democrats worried that day would never arrive, leaving immigrants forever in limbo.

Talks went on, including a 45-minute telephone conversation earlier this week between Hoeven and a top architect of the overhaul, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who said the exchange could best be described as "spirited."

"It was a long one," Hoeven acknowledged, "and very frank."

A compromise seemed out of reach.

But when the budget office reported that the overall bill would net $197 billion from the new fees and taxes that immigrants and their employers would pay, the senators had an opening to beef up the border in ways that had been unimaginable.

The "border surge" came into focus: Triple the number of drones, twice as many boots on the ground and completion of a 700-mile fence. In exchange, immigrants would be able to transition, after 10 years, to permanent legal status as planned. In 13 years, they could gain citizenship.

"Anybody who argues we have not put border security in place, I can't take seriously. Make up another argument," Corker said. "We dealt now with the issue that has separated people."

Critics remain, particularly on the right flank of the Republican Party. Questions are being raised about the heavy price tag at a time when Republicans have been more preoccupied with reining in government spending.

If the amendment pushes the immigration overhaul to passage next week, it is unclear whether colleagues will remember Corker and Hoeven as heroes or something else.

"I know for both of you, this is not easy," Schumer said Friday as the bill was introduced. "This is courageous, and you're doing the right thing for your country."

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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