Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) addresses the Utah Republican Party's… (Rick Bowmer / Associated…)
WASHINGTON – When Sen. Orrin Hatch takes his seat on the dais in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, the 79-year-old slides into his status as the most sought-after vote for immigration reform.
A towering but genteel figure, Hatch is seen as the Republican domino – the first GOP senator, beyond the four in the bipartisan group that crafted the immigration bill, to potentially join the effort. No other Republican on the panel is expected to do so. A yes from Hatch could jump-start support from the party as the bill moves to the full Senate.
Getting Hatch’s vote has become such an intense pursuit that it has rearranged the committee’s workload. While the hourly grind of amending the bill is under way in the hearing room, senators work behind the scenes to test what would happen if they add some measures and subtract others to make Hatch happy.
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As soon as Tuesday, the answer may be apparent.
A tentative agreement was emerging with Hatch, and securing his support would give the bill momentum if the panel accepts the changes he wants in exchange for his vote.
Political roles like this are not served up with much frequency in the Senate. The seasoned and clever seven-term Utahan is using this moment to extract key concessions where other colleagues have failed.
“I’m naturally inclined to support this bill, if I can get some changes,” Hatch said, pausing recently 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.”
Amending the immigration legislation was always both 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 between not only senators, but business, labor and immigrant rights groups.
Too many changes in one direction could lead to a falloff of support in another. That has made negotiating with Hatch not a job for the faint-hearted.
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Bridging the divide has been the work of one of the top architects of the bill, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the chief courier between Hatch and the Senate authors. Schumer courts Hatch with one phone call after the other, ferrying proposals on a sometimes hourly basis – including over this past weekend. Twice behind closed doors the gang met to discuss the Hatch amendments.
“We are negotiating,” Schumer said the other day after talks dragged.
Top among the changes Hatch wants: Make it easier for big business to hire high-skilled foreign workers. He wants to more quickly increase the number of visas available for high-skilled immigrants and limit rules on companies that are designed to ensure Americans have the first crack at the jobs.
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 are lobbying hard for the changes.
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Hatch have an ongoing dialogue on these issues, the senator’s aide said, though a Facebook representative declined to discuss their recent private talks.
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But the high-skilled visa proposals are vigorously opposed by labor unions as taking jobs from U.S. workers, particularly at a time of high unemployment. Already the bill proposes to nearly double the flow of those visas that are available each year, to 110,000. Hatch wants companies to be able to more quickly reach the eventual cap of 180,000.
“We expect them not to sell out American workers,” said Ana Avendaño, an assistant to the president at the influential AFL-CIO labor union, who also serves as director of immigration and community action. “We invest in our kids, we invest in our education system, all we want is a fair shot at these jobs. We have folks in our schools now who very well may be the next Google.”
Labor has a strong ally in Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the gang who must sign off on any agreement reached with Hatch. Durbin and Hatch were once strong partners on immigration issues, but their relationship on this topic since has since ebbed. Durbin wants assurances any tweaks to the bill would result in Hatch’s support.
An emerging agreement Tuesday with Hatch accepts some of those changes, and not others.