WASHINGTON — Key senators brokered a tentative deal Wednesday to strengthen the border-security provisions in the immigration bill, a compromise that could break a logjam by satisfying Republican demands for tougher enforcement without jeopardizing a path to citizenship for immigrants.
The proposal would spend substantially more on security than the $6.5 billion now in the bill, adding more border agents, drones and fencing along the border with Mexico.
Achieving such a deal could be the linchpin to winning the robust Republican support in the Senate that the bill’s authors believe is critical to build momentum in the House, where the GOP majority is more resistant to immigration-law changes. Without it, the legislation could stall.
The senators who crafted the new proposal said they hoped to unveil it Thursday and work to round up support.
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“What we’re talking about is basically a dramatic effort to secure the border that would just, in most people’s minds, be substantial,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has played a key role in negotiating the changes. “I don’t know what happens if we fail. I know this is a key moment in the effort to pass this bill. This is sort of the defining 24 to 36 hours.”
Those involved in crafting the compromise indicated it would provide a more detailed border strategy than the bill does now. It includes a directive for the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a plan to ensure that most immigrants trying to cross over from Mexico are stopped at the border.
The proposal would station substantially more Border Patrol officers along the southern border, in addition to the 3,500 included in the bill, and install more radar technology — including the drone-mounted Vader system. It would also erect more double-layer fencing. Costs could double.
The extra spending would be paid for by new revenue sources established in the bill. Negotiators saw room to maneuver this week when the independent Congressional Budget Office said the bill would decrease the federal deficit by $197 billion over 10 years. The bill sets up new fees and taxes that immigrants would pay as they gained legal status and as employers seek guest-worker visas.
“More manpower, more fencing and more technology — drones, helicopters,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., describing the amendment he is writing with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “The whole focus has been getting bipartisan support, getting people to a comfort level that we are, in fact, securing the border.”
The difficulty in reaching an accord on border security has brought the Senate to a near standstill as Republicans insisted on achieving almost total control of the U.S.-Mexico border before immigrants could transfer to permanent legal status.
That demand was a nonstarter for the four Democrats and four Republicans who crafted the overhaul. Experts have said the goal is potentially unreachable and would leave immigrants indefinitely waiting for permanent legal status, let alone citizenship.
As written, the bill requires only that a plan be in place to detain or turn back 90 percent of those making illegal crossings. It does not have to achieve that goal. But Democrats knew the provision would need to be strengthened to attract Republican support, beyond the handful of lawmakers who now support the bill.
That point was underlined when the budget office said the overhaul would cut the annual flow of illegal immigration only by 25 percent because of “people overstaying their visas issued under the new programs for temporary workers.” After that, beefing up the border gained momentum, senators said.
For two days, senators holed up trying to reach an agreement as the Senate dispensed with some of the less controversial amendments in floor votes.
“We’re close,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the assistant Senate majority leader.
Republican senators presented the outline of the compromise to colleagues Wednesday during a closed-door lunch.
The deal would also include amendments from other Republican senators to strengthen enforcement within the United States. One would bolster the E-Verify program, which, under the bill, requires all employers to verify the legal status of new hires; another would expand the exit-visa system to record departures at 30 international airports.
“Look, we have some people in our caucus that are never going to vote for an immigration bill,” said Corker. “We’ve got to see how many people this actually brings to the table. We’d like for it to go to the House with momentum.”
Notching a significant Senate vote is seen as increasingly important as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has indicated he has little interest in bringing forward legislation that doesn’t have the support of most of his Republicans. Many House Republicans are uninterested in, or explicitly opposed to, a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. without legal status.
Budget hawks will surely balk at the extra spending on border security, even if the cost is fully offset by the new taxes and fees. Some began grumbling Wednesday that throwing more money at the border was not the smartest way to achieve control of the crossings.