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Fears Of Killing Immigration Bill Doomed Same-Sex Amendment

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. (center), listens to testimony during a hearing on the immigration bill on April 22.
Andrew Harnik
The Washington Times/Landov
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. (center), listens to testimony during a hearing on the immigration bill on April 22.

After five marathon sessions debating 150 proposed amendments, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a landmark rewriting of the nation's immigration laws this week — and the bill emerged largely intact.

Three Republicans voted with the panel's 10 Democrats on Tuesday night to forward the bill to the full Senate. That strong showing followed a wrenching choice for Democrats on the committee: whether to risk shattering support for the bill by amending it to recognize equal rights for same-sex couples.

How It Played Out

It was the last day for the Judiciary Committee to make changes in the immigration bill, and senators in the so-called Gang of Eight who wrote that bipartisan legislation were worried.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had not yet ruled out bringing up his own amendment, which would give gay Americans the same right as everyone else to sponsor foreign-born spouses for green cards. Outside the Senate chamber, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Gang of Eight, warned of the possible impact of Leahy's amendment.

"It'll kill the bill. It'll kill the bill," he said. "We lose evangelicals. We lose the Catholic Church.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another Gang of Eight member, said he'd vote against the immigration bill if it recognized same-sex marriages.

And yet just as the Judiciary Committee was set for a final vote on the bill, Leahy defied the pressures to hold back his amendment.

"I'd like to turn to an issue very important to me and to many Americans who are suffering from discrimination based on who we, who they love," he said.

Leahy said he first wanted to hear what members of the committee had to say about his amendment, especially the two Democrats and two Republicans in the Gang of Eight. One of those two Republicans, Arizona's Jeff Flake, told Leahy adopting the amendment would mean the bill would not move forward. The other Gang of Eight Republican, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, agreed.

"It would mean that the bill would fall apart because the coalition would fall apart because no matter how well meaning you are, Sen. Leahy — and I know you are — there are a lot of folks supporting this bill who are not going to agree to redefine marriage for immigration law purposes," Graham said.

The two Democratic members of both the Gang of Eight and the Judiciary Committee were in a tougher spot: They could back Leahy's amendment and risk seeing the bill go down, or they could oppose it despite their strong support for equal rights.

One of them, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Leahy he had reached a difficult conclusion.

"I believe in my heart of hearts that what you're doing is the right and just thing, and I admire you for it very much, Mr. Chairman," he said. "But I believe this is the wrong moment, that this is the wrong bill."

The other Gang of Eight Democrat on the panel, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, said that as much as it pained him, he could not support an amendment if it brought down the bill.

"I'm a politician, and that means I have chosen my life's work within the constraints of the system to accomplish as much as good as I can," he said.

What's Next

Steve Ralls, the spokesman for Immigration Equality, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian immigration rights, put it this way: "Democratic senators unfortunately caved to threats from their colleagues."

Ralls says he doesn't blame Leahy for ultimately withdrawing his amendment. And he says a Supreme Court ruling this summer could overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and make equal protection for same-sex married couples a matter of law.

"But senators last night had an opportunity to make sure that if the court ruling isn't good, that lesbian and gay families would still be treated equally under the law," he said. "It was a critical insurance policy, and senators failed to deliver."

The full Senate is expected to take up the bill next month. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a sharp critic of the bill, predicts that is as far as it will get.

"It may well have the votes to pass the Senate, but I do not believe this bill will pass the House of Representatives or become law," Cruz said.

Republicans may soon face their own dilemma: back the immigration bill and shore up support with Latinos or oppose it and risk further alienating those voters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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