Sen. Dick Durbin is soft-pedaling his Dream Act immigration bill for fear of undercutting the comprehensive reform pushed by his Democratic leadership rival, Sen. Charles Schumer.
Schumer (N.Y.) spearheads efforts to pass the bigger bill this year, but activists believe Durbin’s (D-Ill.) scaled-back version has a better chance of passing.
But there is a complication: Durbin, the second-ranked Dem, cannot want to burnish the reputation of Schumer, ranked third, who is jockeying to take charge if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) loses reelection in November.
Pro-immigration groups are pressing Durbin to move the Dream Act separately from comprehensive reform, which is stalled by a lack of Republican support.
But Durbin is holding back, even though he calls the Dream Act a high priority. It would allow undocumented students to become permanent residents if they came to the country as children and attend college or enlist in the military.
“I’ve tried two or three times on the floor of the Senate, and I hope I get a chance to try again soon,” Durbin said. “When I think of the thousands of young people who are counting on me and whose lives have been changed so negatively, I have an obligation.”
His bill also has a committed Republican sponsor, Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.).
Durbin told a liberal radio show recently that comprehensive reform has scant chance of early passage.
“It’s unlikely we’ll get to it this year,” Durbin told Bill Press, predicting GOP resistance.
Durbin cited the recent defeat of veteran Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), who was kicked off the GOP ballot in Utah for cooperating with Democrats to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Still, Durbin isn’t pushing the Dream Act and said, “I’m not going to push for that because I don’t want anyone to think I’m pushing the Dream Act at the expense of comprehensive immigration reform.”
Schumer, the vice chairman of the Democratic Conference, opposes moving the Dream Act separately because “we have to fight for comprehensive reform.”
Lugar said “it would be a good idea” to move the Dream Act but acknowledged that it might clash with Schumer’s and Reid’s agenda.
“I can understand that in the leaders’ meeting there might be that problem,” he said. “Perhaps
Leader Reid would prefer not to. Leader Reid has indicated his interest in more overall, comprehensive immigration reform.”
Reid, facing a difficult reelection in Nevada, which has a large Hispanic population, has insisted on passing immigration reform.
Some Senate proponents of comprehensive reform doubt the Dream Act could pass as a standalone measure.
They say the Dream Act could pass only with other popular measures such as the Ag Jobs proposal, which would give illegal farm workers temporary immigration status with the possibility of becoming permanent residents.
“Schumer clearly doesn’t think it’s a good idea and has asked people not to push on the Dream Act,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Wilkes said Schumer has changed his position. “Schumer said earlier this year that we could talk about fallback options if things aren’t moving by March,” said Wilkes.
Passage of the Dream Act would not hurt the chances of comprehensive immigration reform, Wilkes said, adding that if it was paired with the Ag Jobs bill it could attract farm-state senators.
But he acknowledged that if Democrats tried and failed to pass the Dream Act, it could make it tougher to pass broader immigration reform in the next Congress.
Robert Gittelson of Conservatives for CIR (Comprehensive Immigration Reform) said Senate Republicans have closed ranks against broad reform.
He believes the Dream Act and Ag Jobs bills could pass separately, but he would prefer them combined.
“I feel that by taking off what would be the low-hanging fruit, it takes away significantly from the full coalition advocating for comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “It would be a long-term mistake to try to pass this short-term, temporary piecemeal solution.”