Sen. Orrin Hatch was the first Republican senator beyond the four in the… (Rick Bowmer / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — When Sen. Orrin G. Hatch took his seat on the dais for the Senate Judiciary Committee's debates on the immigration reform bill, the 79-year-old was not just one of 18 senators. He was the most sought-after vote.
A towering but genteel figure, Hatch was seen as the potential Republican domino — the first GOP senator beyond the four in the bipartisan group that crafted the immigration bill to join the effort. A yes from Hatch, the bill's supporters hoped, would heighten the odds of support from the GOP as the bill moved to the full Senate.
Getting Hatch's vote was such an intense pursuit that it rearranged the committee's workload. While the hourly grind of amending the bill was underway in the hearing room, senators worked behind the scenes to test what would happen if they added some measures and subtracted others to make Hatch happy.
On Tuesday, the answer was apparent.
"I'm going to vote this bill out of committee," Hatch announced as an agreement was reached on his proposed expansion of the high-skilled visa program, giving the bill momentum toward final passage.
Political roles like this are not served up with much frequency in the Senate. The seasoned and clever seven-term senator from Utah used his moment to extract key concessions where other colleagues have failed.
In the days before his vote was won, Hatch had made it clear he was ready to deal.
"I'm naturally inclined to support this bill, if I can get some changes," he had said, pausing to chat in the Capitol basement. "If they can get people like me on the bill — not that I'm that important — but if they can get people like me on the bill, who really would do their best to get it through, it would be good for our country.
"But the way they get me," he said, "is by making it a better bill."
Bringing in more foreign workers has long been on the wish list of tech firms as well as some of the nation's biggest corporations, including Amazon and Wal-Mart, which sources said lobbied hard for the changes.
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Hatch have an ongoing dialogue on these issues, one of the senator's aides said. A Facebook representative declined to discuss their private talks.
But Hatch's proposal to increase high-skilled visas was vigorously opposed by labor unions as taking jobs from U.S. workers, particularly perilous at a time of high unemployment. Influential AFL-CIO labor union President Richard Trumka called them "unambiguous attacks" on American workers.
The bill would have nearly doubled the number of those visas available each year, to 110,000. The agreement with Hatch allows companies to more quickly reach the eventual cap of 180,000, so long as the unemployment rate in those professions does not top 4.5%. New requirements that companies seek American workers or not displace those on the job would also be eased.
Amending the immigration legislation was always a given — and a risk. The inches-thick bill that was compiled by eight senators was a delicately negotiated compromise, worked out after months of talks among not only the senators, but representatives from business, labor and immigrants rights groups.
Too many changes in one direction could have led to a falloff of support in another. That made negotiating with Hatch not a job for the fainthearted.
Bridging the divide was the work of one of the top architects of the bill, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Schumer courted Hatch with one phone call after the other, ferrying proposals on a sometimes hourly basis — including over last weekend. Twice, behind closed doors, the senators who wrote the bill met to discuss the Hatch amendments.
"The compromise, I think, is balanced and fair," Schumer said Tuesday.
On the immigration issue, Hatch's support gives the bill a stamp of approval beyond the backing of the two Republicans on the committee who helped draft the bill — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Hatch's interest in the topic has ebbed and flowed over the years since his early support for immigration reforms a decade ago, but now tracks his party's efforts to improve its dismal standing among Latino and minority voters by pressing for immigration reform.
Attitudes in his Republican-heavy home state are changing too, according to people familiar with Utah politics, as businesses — including the emerging Silicon Slope tech sector outside of Salt Lake City — and the influential Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have become more outspoken about the contributions of immigrants. Hatch is a member of the Mormon Church.
"What we have said to our delegation is: We would like you to pass the best immigration bill you can, and we would like you to pass it as soon as you can — this year," said Marty Carpenter, an executive vice president at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
"We've been very encouraged by what we've seen from Sen. Hatch," he added. "We're confident he understands something needs to get done."
Hatch's decision to help send the bill to the Senate floor, however, was not a promise to vote for it in the end. He has tax- and finance-related amendments that he plans to offer. He has said that those changes must also be adopted to earn his support.