Lee and Sessions Hold Colloquy as They Wait For Corker--Hoeven Amendment Text

Selected Excerpts

June 20, 2013

WASHINGTON—Senator Mike Lee and Sen. Sessions engaged in a colloquy late last night as they waited for legislative text of the Corker--Hoeven amendment to be released.  At this time, the text has still not been released. The following are excerpts from their discussion on the Senate floor:

“Second-Class Senators”

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: Senator Lee, I appreciate your eloquence on this issue, but I did want to share that I feel like that something is going awry in the open debatable process, and we thought we were going to have a day or two, it seems we jumped off the tracks completely.

SENATOR MIKE LEE: Yes. In fact, I find it appalling. I find it repugnant to the system of government under which we are supposed to be operating. I find it even repugnant to Article 6 of the Constitution, which makes it clear that there's one kind of constitutional amendment that is never appropriate. You can't amend the Constitution to deny any state its equal representation in the Senate. And if at any moment we end up with a situation in which we have second-class senators, senators that may commit and propose for debate and discussion and a vote, an amendment, and if we have to go to the majority leader and say “mother, may I”, then perhaps we have lost something. Perhaps we have lost the environment in which each of the states were supposed to receive equal representation.

It also seems to me to take on a certain character, a certain banana republic quality that we're asked to vote on legislation, in many circumstances, just hours or even minutes after we have received it. We take on a certain rubber stamp quality when we do that.

I remember a few months ago, in connection with the fiscal cliff debate, as we approached the fiscal cliff on New Year's Eve, we were told by our respective leaders, “Just wait, something's coming. Go back to your offices, watch your televisions, play with your toys, do whatever it is that you do, but be good senators, run along and stay out of trouble, we're taking care of this. We'll send you legislation as soon as we're ready.”

Well, at 1:36 a.m., we received an email, and attached to that email was a 153-page document. That was the bill that we would be voting on. That bill was one that we would be called to vote on exactly six minutes later at 1:42 a.m. So to my utter astonishment and dismay, senators flocked into this room, and with very, very little objection, ended up passing that legislation overwhelmingly.

This is just one of many examples I can point to in the two and a half years since I have been here when members have been asked to vote and did in fact vote enthusiastically, willingly and with hardly a whimper of objection to legislation that they had never seen, legislation that they were familiar with only to the extent that it had been summarized for them.

Now, that brings us back to this legislation here. We've had this in front of us in one form or another for the last couple of months, but for a long time before we even had it, what we had was a summary of this.[bill]. We had a series of bullet points. Those bullet points were very favorable. For a long time, the bullet points were all we had.

I exaggerate slightly to prove a point, but they read something like this: Is this bill outstanding? Yes. Will this bill solve all of our immigration problems? Absolutely. Is there anything wrong with this bill? Heavens no.

That's how the bullet points read, and it was on that basis that groups around the country and some members even of our own body decided that they would vote for Senate bill 744, even before Senate bill 744 even existed. We had groups across the country, some even in my home state, that came out strongly in favor of the yet to be released Gang of Eight bill, saying “we're going to vote for it, we're going to support it, and anyone who doesn't vote for it in the United States Senate is a backward fool.“ Well, they hadn't read it. They couldn't have read it because the bill didn't yet exist.

Now, in some respects, what happened with this is very similar to what we're now facing with the yet to be released Corker amendment. I haven't seen it, but I'll tell you what I have seen. I've seen a set of very brief bullet points about the Corker amendment, and the bullet points read something like this: Is this amendment outstanding?  Yes. Will this amendment solve our border security problems? Absolutely. Is there any problem presented by this amendment? Absolutely not.

So, I say to my friend from Alabama, if this is what I can expect in my career in the United States Senate, I am a little bit troubled. But I would ask my friend from Alabama if there's anything we can do about separate and apart from the policies surrounding this bill, anything we can do to make this a real legislative body, the kind of body that actually does debate and discuss things? Because you don't really have a true, deliberative legislative body unless you have enough time to debate things before we vote on them, to where the members can actually read them before they come up.


“The Talking Points Were Wrong…Grossly Misleading.”

SESSIONS: Mr. Lee, you remember in committee, our able colleague, Senator Schumer, said this was the toughest bill ever, as I recall, and it was tough as nails, but it looks like now we're told that it wasn't so tough because we have added an amendment that's going to make it tough. So is that kind of what you are saying about the talking points, you have to go beyond the bill, if it was so tough to begin with, why do they need to pass another amendment now that makes it a lot tougher?

LEE: I guess it wasn't tough enough, and they are trying to make it even tougher. But yeah, that is an interesting point. A lot of people got caught up in that kind of mindset even before the bill was released.

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, an institution in my home state, came out overwhelmingly in support of this bill, but the problem is the bill didn't exist. They were going off the talking points.

And here's the problem -- the talking points were wrong. The talking points proved to be grossly misleading. The talking points told us and the proponents of the bill have continued to tell us for months even after the bill text came out and even after we had reason to know better.

They have told us a few things. They have told us, number one, illegal aliens who were legalized under this bill and who would be put on the path to citizenship under this bill would have to pay back taxes as a condition of their legalization. Did that turn out to be true? Absolutely not. When you read the fine print, one thing's very clear -- they have to pay only those back taxes that have previously been assessed by the internal revenue service. What does that mean? Well, [the taxes] have to be found due and owing. They have to have been assessed by the IRS. You don't have taxes assessed by the IRS if, as is often the case for someone who has been working here illegally, you're working off the books. This is what we call an illusory promise. They offered us the sleeves off of their vest. They offered us something that didn't exist in the first place.

We were also told a number of other things about this bill. We were told that there would be a lot of people who would be excluded, and yet we discovered that there

are a lot of people, who even after having committed crimes in this country, even after having illegally re-entered the country following a previous deportation, which by the way is a felony, many of those people will still be able to get legalized and not just remain in this country and continue working, but also continue on the pathway to citizenship and eventually become voting citizens of this country.

We were told that those people who were illegal aliens currently, who would be eligible for legalization and eventual citizenship, would not be eligible during their provisional status for means-tested welfare benefits. Well, did that turn out to be true? No. They are still eligible, for example, for the earned income tax credit which some have described as the most generous and largest in some respects means-tested program that we have.

And so these things turned out not to be true. And yet, a lot of people are still asking their Members of Congress to support this very same legislation, not because they have read it, not because any of those promises were true, but because they are still believing the promises contained in the original set of talking points which most people think are the bill. That's disturbing.


“We’re Shut Out and Shut Down”

LEE: [O]ne of the most galling aspects of this entire debate is that as [the Corker-Hoeven] amendment has been being crafted behind closed doors in secret. We've had dozens and dozens of amendments that are written, that have been filed, that have been prepared, some of which are now pending before the Senate, and yet have we had a chance to vote on those today? No. We're told we have got to wait for the Corker amendment, which isn't even written.

So those of us who have been working on this for months and months and months and have written our own amendments and have aired them publicly and allowed our constituents and people throughout the country to view our amendments, we're shut out. We're shut out and we're shut down and we're told that we don't get a vote on them because we have got to wait for the Corker amendment. That doesn't seem fair to me, it doesn't seem just.

Now, let's look around the room. It's not as though this place is jam-packed with people. It looks like we have kind of been abandoned. A few hours ago, we had all of us here. We were ready to vote on those amendments. We could have had a lot of votes. We were told to expect votes. I was hoping to have votes.

I had a very important amendment that I wanted to get a vote on. It was a vote on an amendment to make sure that 40% of the border that is owned by the federal government could be accessed by our own border patrol agents, so they can do their jobs. [Sen. Sessions] referred earlier to a problem that we have had with our law enforcement personnel being told they can't do their jobs. Well, this is one of those many instances where they can't. You know, 40% of our border is owned by the federal government. I'm sympathetic to this because two-thirds of the land in my state is owned by the federal government, and it's terrible because we can't access most of that land. We can't even walk on that land without saying “mother, may I”, and most of the time we have to walk on, it's like a sand trap on a golf course, you have to walk in with a rake behind you, rake your way in, rake your way out and ask permission for everything you do.

The border is kind of the same way. Federally owned areas of the border, we have got huge stretches of the border, 40% of it where they can't enforce the law because it's owned by the federal government, and there are environmental laws that prohibit these border patrol agents from doing their jobs.

Now, it would be one thing if that actually protected the environment, but it doesn't, because what happens is those same areas, those same environmentally sensitive federally owned areas that illegal immigrants prefer when they choose to cross into this country. So what do we have? Well, we have got a long trail of litter and environmental destruction in the areas where they cross through illegally.

This is just one of many amendments that have been filed that are already written that we could have and should have been voting on, and we haven't been.


“Pass the Bill Now!”

LEE: And you know, Senator Sessions, I have got a dire prediction to make. I suspect that when we come back next week, we might be told that even though the place doesn't seem to be in any hurry right now, all of a sudden it will be in a hurry next week, so much so that I fear we'll be told,  “We've got to pass this bill now! It all has to be passed now, and we don't have time for any more of these pesky amendments from these pesky senators from all over the great country of the United States of America. We have got to pass this now!”

Well, we have had time to vote on other amendments, and we have squandered that opportunity or we have had it squandered for us. You and I and a number of others have been ready to vote on our amendments, amendments that have been prepared for a long time, amendments that have been aired for the public to view for a long time. We haven't been allowed a vote, and I've got a problem with that.


“You Got to Take Every Bit of it.”

LEE: I don't think there is any issue that even comes close to it in terms of its ability to divide Americans along partisan lines or along other ideological lines than the pathway to citizenship. Makes me wonder why, then, it's so important for us to pass this all-in-one bill.

Why do we need a single thousand-page bill? Why can't we pass this in steps? Especially when we come to an understand that if we do do it in a proper sequence, much of the problem will be easier to resolve, much of the problem will be more amenable to a more clear solution. Maybe of those among us who are undocumented are here in an undocumented state not necessarily because they want to become citizens, not necessarily because they want to live here in perpetuity. In many instances I'm told a lot of these people are here year in and year out because they're afraid if they leave and go home they won't be able to get back in.

But if we had updated and modernized our legal immigration system, if we could do that, get those laws implemented I suspect a lot of those people would choose to be able to go back home to their home countries, be with families and loved ones, knowing that the next time they wanted to come back to the United States to work, they'd have a fair shot at doing it. There would be a clear pathway for them to apply for some kind of legal status coming into this country to work for a time.  And if they had greater certainty that they'd actually be able to get back in, perhaps they wouldn't choose to remain here year in and year out. And at that point we might have a different circumstance on our hand rather than 11 million people, perhaps the number would be different than that.

I'm not sure. But one thing I do know is that if there is one way to make it more difficult to enact immigration reform, if there is one way to make it less likely that we'll have broad-based bipartisan consensus for immigration reform, that the one way do that, the one way to ensure it's going to be as contentious, as partisan, as difficult as possible is to fold it all into one. Put it in a thousand-page bill and say you've got to take all of it. You got to take every bit of it. All of it or you get none of it.


“Read The Bill”

LEE: It's interesting when I have individuals and groups come through my office telling me they'd like me to support this bill, I ask them, of course, why. Inevitably, they'll point to usually just one or two of the countless provisions in this thousand-page bill.

It's almost always because of one very discrete component they like. Perhaps they like the high-skilled visa reform. Perhaps they like the low-skilled visa reform. Perhaps they like some piece here or there. But it's always one or two, very discrete provisions. That's what causes them to say, “I want you to vote for this thousand-page bill.”

Inevitably I will ask them have you read the whole bill? If you haven't read the whole bill have you at least studied the whole bill, studied each of the constituent parts? Have you studied the implications of all the other provisions you'd be asking me to vote for? Inevitably, the answer is no.

It's an unqualified, unapologetic no and in many cases it's a no that is uttered in a way that makes me realize they haven't really considered the question. I don't fault them for that. Their job is not to legislate. Their job is to advocate, in many instances they're lobbyists, in other instances they're citizen groups who are just expressing their opinion. And they've got every right to do so. But my job is to legislate and before I'm asked to vote for a bill, before I'm going to vote yes on something to make it law, I've got to read it. I've got to understand it. And I've got to like not just one or two provisions, I've got to be convinced that on balance this bill makes sense for the American people and that it will do considerably more good than harm. That at a minimum won't do more harm than good. And I can't answer that question that way with this bill. I just can't get there.

So I invite all the American people, anyone who might be hearing my voice, to join me in this dialogue, to join in this discussion. If you want to be part of the immigration solution, read the bill. If you don't want to read the whole bill, study the whole bill, read a robust summary, not the cheerleading talking points put out by the bill's principal advocates but read a robust synopsis that tells you how the pieces connect together and then tell me whether you think I should vote for it.

Most of the time if people do it that way they're going to come at this with a very different conclusion.


“One Piece at a Time”

LEE: I think if we were to break it up into its constituent parts and debate and vote on each one, as a separate bill, I think the American people would be better served. I think more of the American people would get more of what they want out of immigration reform if we were to do it that way.

In many ways, the people who come into my office and tell me I want you to support this bill and I want you to support it because I like, you know, section 345 or whatever section they're talking about.

In a lot of ways, they're making my point for me. We ought to address this one piece at a time, just as they're addressing it with me. They're not really saying I want you to vote for Senate bill 744. Literally, technically, they are saying that, but in reality what they're saying is I want you to vote for the section that I like.

That's exactly what we ought to be doing. We ought to be voting for the section we like and we ought to be voting for it one section at a time, one piece at a time. We'll be in a much better position to do it that way.