In the wake of a major crack down on illegal immigration in Arizona, Senate Democratic leaders released a 26-page framework for legislation on Wednesday that sets tough border security standards as a precursor to illegal immigrants finding a pathway to U.S. citizenship, something critics often label amnesty. This "border security first" approach was one advocated by Republicans in 2005 when major reform was last attempted.
"Proponents of immigration reform ackowledge that that we need to meet clear and concrete benchmarks before we can finally ensure that America's borders are secure and effectively deal with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S.," the document states.
The outline, obtained by Fox, was written by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, number three in leadership, and Cuban-American Bob Menendez, D-NJ, responsible for his party's 2010 midterm election effort.
"Reid, Schumer and Menendez submitted an outline to pro-immigration groups this morning in advance of a meeting later today. The outline represents the framework for a potential bill that would be co-sponsored by senators like Durbin and Feinstein and advanced by Democratic leadership later this year," one senior Democratic official said.
Menendez tells Fox he hopes the measure "instigates the White House to have a summit to bring individuals from both houses and both parties together to see what is possible to move forward."
The outline contains a number of items not previously in reform bills with a heavy focus on border enforcement as a benchmark.
More Border Patrol officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are called for, with biometric identification elements, a controversial issue in previous reform efforts, as a way to detect fraud.
Menendez noted that the proposal calls for more family reunification measures, something the senator fought hard for in 2005 when the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, worked with Sen. John McCain, R-AZ on a broad reform effort.
As for McCain, a lot has changed in five years. The senator endured a rough 2008 presidential campaign as the GOP nominee, with the conservative base highly critical of his efforts with the liberal lion, Kennedy. And with McCain in a heated primary back home against an opponnent known for a tough, singular focus on border security, McCain would only repeat several times to reporters on Wednesday, "We have to get the border secure first."
"We believe it is a framework for the community and for those of us who want to see immigration reform take place to start the conversation," Menendez said, noting that much of it contains what Sen Lindsey Graham, R-SC, originally agreed to when he was still part of compromise talks.
Graham recently backed out of talks with Schumer when Sen. Reid indicated he would move on an immigration bill this year. Democrats are now going it alone, with Reid indicating it would be months before the issue could come to the floor, as the leader put confirmation of a new Supreme Court nominee and climate change legislation in the legislative queue before immigration at a news conference on Wednesday.
And while Reid brislted at GOP charges that the new Arizona law is a result of federal inaction, with the leader blaming it on Republican obstruction, President Obama, returning from a trip to the midwest, acknowledged the slow-pace on the national front.
"The federal govt has been abdicting on it's responsibilties for a very long time on this issue," the president told reporters aboard Air Force One.
But Obama acknowledged the rough policial climate in this midterm election year might mean more inaction, saying, "I know there may not be an appetite...to dive into another controversial issue." The president said he wanted to bring together a "working group" that includes Republicans, and Obama has reached out to a number of them in the Senate, but it does not appear to have sparked a desire to work on this controversial issue.
One senior Senate Democratic aide tells Fox, "The leader might try to bring up something this year, but there is no way a bill is getting through this Congress this year, not the least of which is because we have near 10% unemployment."
Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, the head of his party's re-election effort this Fall, introduced his own immigration bill Wednesday that focuses solely on border enforcement.
In his Southern Border Security Assistance Act, Cornyn is proposing giving state and local police access to $300 million in federal grants that could be used for securing the long stretch of border with Mexico, a country Cornyn said was facing "an existential threat" to its government.
Cornyn said the money could be used "to upgrade equipment, hire more officers."
While Cornyn would not take a position on the Arizona law but said, "It first and foremost represents a failure to deal with this on the national level," the senator, a former state Supreme Court justice, said the answer should really be left to the federal government.