WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday confirmed Republican immigration hawks' worst fears by suggesting Senate Democrats are interested in using the GOP's border crisis plan as a jumping-off point for comprehensive immigration reform.
The House and Senate are planning votes this week on separate bills to deal with the more than 57,500 unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border illegally since October, and to deter more from coming. The bills have dramatically different approaches -- the Senate Democrats' $2.7 billion package excludes major policy changes, while the House Republicans' proposed $659 million in funding is tied to a number of measures that would alter current law.
Reid suggested that if the House approves a bill on the border crisis, it could be the basis for a so-called conference committee where both chambers work out the details of differing legislation. This conference committee would take up the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, which many in the House despise, viewing it as a sort of amnesty for lawbreakers.
"If they pass [border crisis funding], maybe it’s an opening for us to have a conference on our comprehensive immigration reform. If they’re finally sending us something on immigration, maybe we could do that," Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Asked if he was worried his "threat" would make the House bill fail, Reid demurred.
"I'm not threatening anything, but we’ve been looking for something to do a conference on, maybe we could do it with that," he said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped draft the so-called gang of eight immigration reform bill, told reporters he would not comment on the plans until he could see what, if anything, the House approves.
"I want to see what the House does first," he said. "Let's see if they can get a bill through. I'm dubious that they can get a bill through right now."
The four Republicans in the gang of eight -- Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) -- issued a joint statement last week saying they would oppose efforts to include the legislation in plans to address the border crisis.
“While we continue to support the goals of comprehensive immigration reform, none of us would support including that bill in legislation needed this year to address the current humanitarian crisis on our southern border," they said. "Any legislation considered this year must be focused exclusively on addressing the current crisis, halting the flow of unaccompanied children crossing the border and preventing future waves from making the dangerous journey north."
Some House Republicans have argued against passing any border crisis funding based on the risk that Senate Democrats could try to add other measures. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) warned earlier Tuesday that the Senate might undermine a bill passed in the House and send back "an amnesty and open borders bill."
"Senator Chuck Schumer has repeatedly urged the House to pass some immigration legislation of any kind so that when it gets to the Senate, he can then morph it into the Senate gang of eight bill," Brooks said. "So that is the cause for the concern: Chuck Schumer wanting us to do exactly what the speaker is proposing."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) responded in a statement that the lower chamber would not take up the Senate immigration reform bill or accept other measures like it as part of border crisis funding efforts.
"Senator Reid, embarrassed that he cannot strong-arm the Senate into passing the blank check President Obama demanded, is making a deceitful and cynical attempt to derail the House’s common-sense solution," Boehner said. "So let me be as clear as I can be with Senator Reid: the House of Representatives will not take up the Senate immigration reform bill or accept it back from the Senate in any fashion. ... Such measures have no place in the effort to solve this crisis, and any attempt to exploit this crisis by adding such measures will run into a brick wall in the People’s House."
UPDATE: 6:45 p.m. -- McCain, Flake, Rubio and Graham issued another joint statement on Tuesday in response to Reid's comments, reiterating that they would not support adding immigration reform to a border crisis bill.
“Last year, we voted to pass immigration reform legislation through the United States Senate. While we continue to support the goals of comprehensive immigration reform, none of us would support – or have ever contemplated – including that bill or the DREAM Act in legislation urgently needed this year to address the current humanitarian crisis on our southern border. It is obvious that Majority Leader Reid’s suggestion that the Senate could include comprehensive immigration reform in its border crisis bill is a blatant attempt to scuttle House Republicans’ good-faith efforts to pass legislation addressing the issue this week. To be clear: Without our support – which he would not have – it would be impossible for Leader Reid to add comprehensive immigration reform or the DREAM Act to any border crisis bill this week. We encourage our colleagues in the House to move forward and pass legislation focused exclusively on addressing the current humanitarian crisis on the border, and finally test whether Democrats will work constructively with Republicans to solve this humanitarian crisis on our border, or play politics with an issue of urgent national importance."