Key players in Senate talks on immigration reform are staying mum following a media report that Democrats are working to delay a vote on making the package gay-inclusive — prompting one advocate to call for the White House to intervene.
Late Thursday, Politico reported that Democrats are asking the White House to tell Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to withhold amendments for bi-national same-sex couples until the larger measure reaches the Senate floor — where passage will likely be more difficult.
“They’re increasingly uneasy about risking Republican support but reluctant to tell gay rights advocates that an amendment allowing American citizens to seek green cards for their same-sex foreign partners may not get a vote in the Judiciary Committee,” Politico reported.
Concern over the amendments follows remarks from Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — as well as comments from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to the Washington Blade — that including the pro-gay language would kill immigration reform.
LGBT advocates involved in talks told the Washington Blade they’re unaware of any such conversations between the White House and Democrats. Spokespersons for the Human Rights Campaign and Immigration Equality said the Politico report was the first they’ve heard about any such discussion.
Steve Ralls, an Immigration Equality spokesperson, said the White House should go on the record in response to the reporting — which he called “alarming” — because the LGBT community “has a right to know which particular senators” are “scheming to throw gay families under the bus.”
“The chairman has stuck his neck out for gay families, but I fear Schumer is working to avoid confronting the issue because of Republicans’ threats and intimidation,” Ralls said. “If the president is being asked to help slow down or stop a vote, the White House owes our families an assurance that he is refusing to do so.”
The White House didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the Politico report.
Leahy has filed amendments before the committee along the lines of the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States.
One measure mirrors UAFA, the other is restricted to married bi-national couples. According to LGBT advocates, Leahy has given assurances that he’ll bring up the amendments as the committee considers family unification issues for immigration reform.
One group, Immigration Equality, says all Democrats on the committee have given assurances they’d support at least one of the measures — with the exception of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). That’s just one vote short of a majority vote in committee.
The only Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who offered responses to the Blade on Friday were Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Speaking directly with Blade, Blumenthal said he supports the Leahy measures and is unaware of any talks to delay voting on them.
“I’ve heard nothing about it,” Blumenthal said. “I haven’t spoken with the White House about it; I haven’t heard of any Democrats talking to the White House.”
Ian Koski, a Coons spokesperson, said, “I’m afraid I haven’t heard anything about that other than press reports.”
Alexandra Fetissoff, a Franken spokesperson, was similarly unaware of the discussions detailed in Politico as she gave assurances on the Minnesota senator’s vote.
“We’re unaware of any conversation and Sen. Franken is definitely not making the request,” Fetissoff said. “He plans to support Sen. Leahy’s provision when it comes up for a vote.
But key players in the immigration talks didn’t push back against the Politico report to say that the assertions are untrue.
Schumer, a member of the “Gang of Eight” that produced the base bill, is the lone Democrat on the panel who hasn’t committed to voting for the amendments in the committee. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The offices of Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who are also members of the “Gang of Eight,” also didn’t respond.
In the Politico article, Durbin is quoting as saying Obama is “working behind the scenes,” but declined to give additional details. The article doesn’t quote him as saying whether the White House is involved positively or negatively in working toward a gay-inclusive bill.
The only Democratic member of the “Gang of Eight” who responded was Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Tricia Enright, a Menendez spokesperson, said she’s “not aware” of requests made to the White House to ask Leahy to hold off on the amendments.
Additionally, the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) didn’t respond to a request for comment. According to Immigration Equality, her vote also was in question, but she’s given assurances she’d support the more restrictive amendment offered by Leahy limited to married bi-national same-sex couples.
As for what Leahy has been told, a Senate aide referred to the Politico article. The Vermont senator is quoted as saying he spoke with Obama regarding immigration reform on Wednesday, but the issue regarding gay couples didn’t come up.
“I am the most senior member of the Senate, I’m an experienced chairman. He’s happy I’m handling immigration,” Leahy reportedly said. “He hasn’t suggested whether I should or shouldn’t do it because he knows I’ll make up my own mind.”
Family unification issues for immigration reform, under which UAFA would fall, are scheduled to come up before the committee next week starting on Monday.
Ralls said he expects the amendments to come up on Tuesday, but cautioned they may not come up at all if Leahy feels he doesn’t have sufficient support in committee.
“We are concerned, given the very weak support of Democrats and ongoing threats from Republicans, that the amendments may not even be given an up or down vote in committee, despite Leahy’s leadership and passion for the issue,” Ralls said.
Blumenthal said the last he heard was that Leahy intended to offer the amendments in committee, but plans may have changed.
“The last I heard from him, he was going to proceed, but that was last week,” Blumenthal said. “I can’t speak for him. I don’t know what he intends to do, but I understood he was going to offer the amendment.”
Obama addressed the issue during a news conference as part of a visit to Costa Rica earlier this month. The president called including the provisions the “right thing to do,” but left the door open to signing a bill that lacked protections for bi-national gay couples.
“I can also tell you I’m not going to get everything I want in this bill,” Obama added. “Republicans are not going to get everything that they want in this bill.”