WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) unveiled an amendment on Wednesday that some argue could bring down the comprehensive immigration reform bill by putting in costly and difficult to reach border security requirements.
"It's not possible for us to support [Cornyn's] amendment as it is presently written," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the "gang of eight" that drafted the bill, told reporters. "It's a poison pill."
The amendment is meant to strengthen border provisions in the "gang of eight" bill, which passed its first votes on Tuesday to proceed to debate. Whether those provisions are strengthened -- through Cornyn's RESULTS amendment or something else -- will likely prove pivotal to winning over Republicans, including gang of eight member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
It could also hurt the bill, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also calling the amendment a poison pill, and others saying it's simply unworkable.
The debate is one that has been brought up in every discussion of immigration reform: The border must be secured and often, proposals to secure it aren't considered good enough. Cornyn insisted that the bill as written does not have strict enough border enforcement measures.
"Here's the bottom line and the reality," he said on the Senate floor. "Without a border security trigger, immigration reform will be dead on arrival in the House of Representatives. My amendment provides such a trigger, the gang of eight bill does not. ... My amendment is essential to moving this legislation forward and to getting an outcome that ultimately will end up on the president's desk."
He grew testy later when debating the amendment with gang of eight members McCain and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), calling it "preposterous" that gang of eight members were resisting amendments. Schumer said they are open to other amendments -- just not this one.
"It's not true that this is written on golden tablets," McCain said, adding it's "patently false" to allege they are trying to block changes to the bill.
The gang of eight bill would allow undocumented immigrants to gain provisional status, which would let them remain in the country legally and work. It would later create a path to citizenship -- first a green card, then eventual naturalization -- but only if certain border security measures were met to trigger the plan to move forward.
Cornyn's amendment would add to those triggers by broadening security requirements. While the gang of eight would require 90 percent apprehension of border-crossers and full operational security in high-traffic areas of the border, Cornyn's amendment would extend those requirements to the entire border. The gang of eight bill includes a pilot program for biometric entry and exit systems in airports, but Cornyn's amendment requires biometric systems in all airports and seaports before the path to citizenship can open. It would also call for 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents.
Some border-area lawmakers feel such additional requirements are simply unnecessary. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), who represents the border city of El Paso, said last week that senators from his state -- Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) -- may not realize that provisions meant to strengthen border security could also hurt the state's ability to do business with Mexico.
"It's just such a big state that I want to think that Cornyn and Cruz, those senators, have the best of intentions but maybe just don't understand the dynamic on the border," he told HuffPost in an interview, before Cornyn's amendment was introduced.
McCain, who is also from a border state, railed on the Senate floor against claims that their bill did too little on border security, pointing out the increases in funding and border requirements already in the bill. He told reporters after leaving the floor that the gang of eight will work with fellow Republicans on amendments that allay concerns without killing the bill, and hope to do something soon.
He said he wasn't surprised the debate has turned so much to the border.
"I knew that it would," McCain said. "That's because in some of these people's minds you could have the Berlin Wall and it wouldn't be secure enough."
He and Schumer argued with Cornyn on the Senate floor later on Wednesday that Cornyn's amendment would take up so much funding on border agents that little would be left for more effective methods of surveillance, such as drones.
It's likely that some sort of amendment on border security will make it into the bill, since many Republicans say it is necessary to win their vote. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who surprised observers by voting on Tuesday against moving the bill forward, told Politico he might sign on to the bill if the Cornyn amendment was added.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), speaking to reporters earlier Wednesday at a Christian Science Monitor event, said he doesn't consider the Cornyn amendment a "poison pill," but doesn't expect it to be approved as written, either.
"It's unlikely that he'll get his amendment as it is, so what we're doing now is trying the different areas that we can agree on," he said, adding that he trusts Cornyn at his word that he would support the bill if his amendment is passed.
But Democrats such as Reid have said they will fight against amendments that make the border triggers to difficult to achieve and therefore undermine the path to citizenship, although he added he is open to some changes on the border provisions. He did not specifically single out Cornyn or other Republicans.
"I am concerned that some who oppose the very idea of reform see these triggers as a backdoor way to undermine the legislation," Reid said on the Senate floor. "And I believe some Republicans with no intention of voting for the final bill -- regardless of how it is amended -- seek to offer these amendments with the sole purpose of derailing this vital reform."
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