As he arrived at the Capitol for a vote last week, Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was queried by a reporter on the immigration bill that had emerged from the Judiciary Committee the night before. Chambliss replied with a typical senatorial description of why he had not made up his mind yet.
“Well, now’s the time to look at it since it’s in its final form, and that’s what we’re doing,” Chambliss said.
A few steps ahead, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who helped write the bill as one of the “Gang of Eight,” turned around and said: “Put him down as a yes, an unequivocal yes.”
Chambliss continued, “We need an immigration reform bill, and I hope my friends listen to me is all I can say.”
As Chambliss got on an elevator with a few senators, McCain called out: “We always listen to him. We’ll do whatever he says, and it’ll be an aye vote. You can quote me.”
June’s Senate floor debate will be a moment of truth for the coalition that spent months drafting a bill, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has set a goal of 70 votes in favor of the plan. Chambliss, whose own Gang of Eight on deficit reduction came up with principles but never actually wrote a bill, can empathize.
But pressure within the cloakroom and hallways means less than the feedback from hyper-engaged activists at home. Rallies and correspondence are starting to spread, much as they did the last time a bill promising legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants made it this far, in 2007.
Chambliss and Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson were involved in writing the 2007 bill but ended up voting against it after Chambliss was booed at the state GOP convention and Isakson was mailed bricks to build a wall on the Mexican border.
Both avoided the talks this time, and Isakson was similarly noncommittal on the bill last week. The effort’s shaky status in the more polarized House might give them further pause.
All four Georgians running for Chambliss’ Senate seat – including three sitting House members – declared firm opposition to the Senate’s immigration plan last weekend at the GOP convention in Athens. Augusta Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow announced his own denunciation Thursday and dropped a bill to beef up border security, intended as a prerequisite to talk about legalization.
Barrow recently passed on the chance to run for Senate and now resumes his biennial fight to hold a district that voted for Mitt Romney by 12 percentage points last year.
He was asked why he was proposing the bill “alone”— as endless multi-member news conferences are the norm in the House — and Barrow replied, “I know this: I’m not alone back home on this issue. There’s a great concern in this country that there is a bipartisan agreement to do something for the worst possible reasons.”
The implied political subtext is Republicans’ renewed desire to woo Latino voters after they helped deliver President Barack Obama a second term, while Democrats and liberal allies have sought citizenship for undocumented immigrants for years.
Chambliss, who’s retiring next year, is free of re-election politics, though he might be inclined to offer cover for his good buddy Isakson, who says he plans to seek re-election in 2016.
Chambliss plans to offer several amendments to steer the bill more to his liking, and reflecting later on McCain’s comments he laughed at the rare “whatever he says” guarantee.
“And McCain doesn’t even drink, so you can’t blame it on that,” Chambliss said.