WASHINGTON — A deal to spend tens of billions more on border security was announced by a bipartisan group of senators Thursday, who heralded it as a major breakthrough on a comprehensive immigration bill that has been hung up over the issue.
The compromise would add 20,000 border patrol agents — double the manpower in place now — complete 700 miles of new fencing along the southern border and mandate other enforcement measures before millions of immigrants could apply for green cards, a permanent residency status that can lead to citizenship.
"For people who are concerned about border security, once they see what's in this bill, it's almost overkill," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who led the compromise with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said on MSNBC.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a top negotiator on the original bill, gushed on the Senate floor about a "breathtaking show of force" that would "inundate" the southern border. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., referred to it as a "surge," invoking the troop buildup in Iraq.
It was a carefully constructed effort that paid immediate dividends. At least one Republican senator, Mark Kirk of Illinois, said he could now support the bill. Others who were considered open to the bill were moving in that direction.
Critics were unmoved.
As many as 11 million illegal immigrants would become legal soon after the legislation is approved — which backers say is necessary to bring them "out of the shadows" and require them to pay back taxes and fines.
"We know the legislation gives amnesty first," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaking for a broad constituency of conservatives. He scoffed at plans for back taxes as "utterly ridiculous, a talking point."
The conservative group Heritage Action urged members to reject the border security amendment, which had not been formally introduced as of Thursday evening.
While the path to citizenship would be dependent on the new security being in place, the deal softens a 90 percent apprehension mandate sought by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and makes that only a goal.
Cornyn last week called for 5,000 more border patrol agents, but at the time that was criticized as too costly. The new deal would add 20,000 agents, up from 3,500 in the original bill.
"How much is it going to cost?" an annoyed Cornyn asked Thursday as senators took to the floor to explain the deal.
The answer: $30 billion.
Proponents pointed to a report from the Congressional Budget Office, released Wednesday, that said the legislation would spur economic growth and cut the federal deficit by $175 billion over the next decade. They also used as justification the CBO's conclusion that the original bill would only slow illegal immigration by 25 percent.
Behind the scenes, both sides gave up something: Republicans on the hard trigger Cornyn sought and Democrats on objections to even more border security, which they contend is already at historic levels.
The bill had come under increasing scrutiny from Republicans, who said its security measures fell flat. A number of provisions aimed at strengthening it were rejected during an initial review by the Judiciary Committee, but opposition mounted as the legislation moved to the Senate floor. Advocates want as many Senate votes as possible — 70 is the high bar — to pressure the House to sign on.
The Corker-Hoeven amendment, if adopted early next week, would add more high-tech security elements, such as ground sensors and radar. It also mandates an employee verification system be in place before any permanent residency is granted. The bill envisions a 13-year path to citizenship.
Rubio, who helped write the original bill and once cast it as the toughest in history, pushed for a detailed border security plan to be inserted in legislation, rather than leaving it up to the Department of Homeland Security, which he said could not be trusted to carry through.
"I understand the frustration, I really do. I know that these promises have been made in the past," Rubio said, referring to the last major immigration overhaul, in 1986, and border security moves since then.
"But here's the reality of it: the choice is before us to try to fix this or leave it the way it is. And what we have today is a disaster of epic proportions. Ten or eleven million human beings living among us and we don't know who they are. They are working but not paying taxes. There are criminals among them. That has to be solved. An illegal immigrant system built on the 19th century? We need to fix this, and this is our chance to fix it."
The argument was already working.
Kirk told the Chicago Sun-Times he could now support the bill "because then I will be able to assure the people of Illinois that the border is well covered with 21,000 border agents added, one every thousand feet, I think we got the border covered."
The House still has to take up its legislation, and opposition there is considerably stronger.
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.