May 21, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Tensions high as Senate panel considers immigration reform
Advocates are looking to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to amend the immigration bill with UAFA. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Advocates are looking to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to amend the immigration bill with UAFA. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Tensions were high as observers waited to see on Tuesday whether Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would introduce amendments before a Senate committee to include bi-national same-sex couples as part of comprehensive immigration reform. The committee is expected to wrap consideration of the measure by 10 p.m. Tuesday. The Washington Blade will update this post as developments warrant.

Leahy is facing pressure to withhold the amendments from Senate Republicans who say their introduction will kill the larger package and, according to recent media reports, from other Senate Democrats as well as the White House.

Both amendments were already filed by Leahy. One mirrors the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States. The other would allow for the approval of marriage-based green card applications for married same-sex couples.

At the start of Tuesday, many advocates were pessimistic about the chances of the amendments passing in the wake of comments from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who said he won’t commit to supporting the amendments. His vote is necessary for unanimous support among Democrats and a majority vote in committee.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said blame will be shared on both sides of the aisle if the committee doesn’t amend the immigration bill to include protections for gay couples.

“If the amendments are not offered for a vote, there will be bipartisan blame: On Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Jeff Flake for making threats and bullying colleagues to abandon our families; and on Senator Schumer, for refusing to stand up, in the face of that bullying, for his own constituents who desperately need him to cast his vote in their favor,” Ralls said.

Lavi Soloway, a gay immigration attorney and founder of The DOMA Project, was anticipating defeat and criticized Schumer as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who only supports the DOMA carve-out amendment, for what he said was “betrayal” over not providing full support to the LGBT community.

“This was the moment that required courage and leadership,” Soloway writes. “The most vulnerable members of our community relied on Senator Schumer and Senator Feinstein to stand up for us and end decades of catastrophic and irreparable harm to our families caused by DOMA and our exclusion from U.S. immigration law.”

Leahy hasn’t committed to offering the amendments before the committee, although he has promoted their inclusion in immigration reform. A Senate aide said if they were to come up, they’d likely be the last piece of businesses for the final committee vote on reporting out the legislation to the Senate floor.

Adding to the tension was an Associated Press report saying that the White House had asked Leahy to hold off on introduction of the amendments until the legislation reaches the Senate floor. Passage on the floor would be more difficult than in committee and the amendments are unlikely to succeed there.

After the the daily briefing on Tuesday, the Blade shouted a question to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to verify the accuracy of the report. Carney offered no response.

A Senate Judiciary committee aide also wouldn’t verify the accuracy of the Associated Press article.

“The chairman speaks to the president often but he does not discuss what they speak about in any given week,” the aide said.

The AP report comes of the heels of another report from Politico saying key Democrats on the panel asked the White House to intercede to persuade Leahy to hold off on introducing the amendments. The Vermont Democrat is quoted in the article as saying the issue didn’t come up in his discussion with the White House.

Ralls said the AP report indicates a lack of support and all parties who support LGBT rights should also advocate on behalf of the Leahy amendments.

“There is no pro-LGBT position to take in this debate other than full support for the chairman’s amendments,” Ralls said. “That’s what we expect from the White House, and every senator who has proclaimed their support for the repeal of DOMA and the equal treatment of our families under the law. You can’t say you support equality, and then work to delay or derail it.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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