WASHINGTON — Four Democratic and four Republican senators formally unveiled a sweeping immigration bill Thursday at a news conference attended by traditional opponents from big business and labor, conservative groups and liberal ones. The lawmakers argued that this time, thanks to that broad-based support, immigration overhaul legislation can succeed in Congress.
"Powerful outside forces have helped defeat certain other initiatives in Washington, but on immigration, the opposite is proving true," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said a day after senators under intense lobbying pressure blocked a major gun control package. "I am confident this issue will not fall victim to the usual partisan deadlock."
Support for the bill is already being put to the test as conservatives grow more vocal in opposition. Two Republican senators held a dueling news conference with law enforcement officials to bash the bill's security provisions, and several conservative bloggers seized on one provision of the legislation to falsely claim that it would allow people here illegally to get free cellphones.
The 844-page bill is designed to secure the border, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country while requiring employers to verify their legal status, and put 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship, as long as certain border security goals are met first.
"Yes, we offer a path to citizenship to people who didn't come here legally," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., anticipating opposition to that provision. "They're here, and realistically there is nothing we can do to induce them all to return to their countries of origin."
In addition to Schumer and McCain, the members of the so-called Gang of Eight are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The bill will get its first hearing Friday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Standing behind the senators was a who's-who of Washington conservative and liberal leaders, representatives from religious groups, Latino activist organizations and others.
Before the senators came to the podium, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist shook hands with AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka, then exchanged pleasantries with Neera Tanden, head of the liberal Center for American Progress. They were joined by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza and others, around two dozen all together.
Many of the advocates and senators present were veterans of past failed efforts at reform, most notably in 2007, when legislation pushed by then-President George W. Bush collapsed on the Senate floor amid a ferocious public backlash and interest-group opposition.
Asked why an immigration overhaul would succeed this time, McCain turned and pointed to the advocates arrayed behind him.
"This is a coalition. I never thought I'd be standing with Richard Trumka," McCain said. "This is why we will succeed."
The alliances the senators painstakingly knit together is one difference this time, but the political climate is better too. President Barack Obama's resounding victory among Latino voters in 2012 demonstrated to McCain and other Republicans the urgency for the GOP to act on the immigration issue. Polls also show majority public support for a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
Schumer cited that support in rejecting a comparison to the failure of the gun bill.
"I don't think it's at all like gun control, frankly," Schumer said. "Because I think the product we're starting out with has broader support, on a broader basis, than guns did, both in the Senate and the country."
But in some corners opposition remains strong. Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Vitter of Louisiana, along with several law enforcement officials, held a news conference at almost the same time as the Gang of Eight members to dismiss their claims of improved border enforcement and security.
"Like 2007, this bill is amnesty before enforcement," Sessions said. "The day the bill passes illegal immigrants will have the presumption of amnesty and all (Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano) has to do is submit a vague plan in six months that may never get implemented."
Meanwhile Rubio, a tea party favorite who's working to sell the bill to conservatives, was playing offense against criticism of the bill. One claim circulating on conservative blogs was that immigrants here illegally could get free cellphones — being derided as "MarcoPhones." In fact, the provision in question could allow U.S. citizens in border regions without cell coverage to get emergency communications grants that could be used for satellite phones to call 911 to report border violence or crossings.
Rubio's office unveiled an "Immigration Reform Facts" website with a "myth-busting" section, and Rubio continued a talk-radio offensive aimed at trying to mute opposition from conservative radio hosts who helped contribute to the bill's defeat in 2007.
He got a mixed reception Thursday from Rush Limbaugh, who praised Rubio as a "genuine conservative" but went on to say, "The bill itself, however, I'm never going to understand. ... I've never agreed with Chuck Schumer on anything. Why should I on this?"
The senators' news conference, which had been scheduled for earlier in the week when the bill was introduced but was postponed after Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon, had at times a congratulatory feel. At the same time they all acknowledged that an even tougher climb was ahead as the bill makes its way through the Judiciary Committee and then to the Senate floor, with an even more uncertain reception waiting in the conservative-controlled House.
"We're either going to get a bill or have one hell of a fight," Graham said.