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GOP In A Bind As Dems Reject Cornyn's Immigration Trigger

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AP Photo / Charles Dharapak

"I will not accept any poison pills," Reid told Univision. "I mean, we have a senator from Texas, Senator Cornyn, who wants to change border security, a trigger, saying that it has to be a 100 percent border security, or they'll be no bill. That's a poison pill. If people have suggestions like they did in the Judiciary Committee to change the bill a little bit, I'll be happy to take a look at that. But we're not going to have big changes in this legislation."

Cornyn's RESULTS amendment forbids undocumented immigrants from obtaining permanent residency until four criteria are met: 100 percent surveillance of the southern border, a minimum 90 percent apprehension rate for illegal border crossings, an operational biometric ID system at air and sea ports, and implementation of E-Verify nationally. He says the measure is critical to ensuring border security.

"The choice for Senate Democrats when I offer my amendment is very simple: if they are sincere about securing the border, here is their chance," Cornyn said in a statement. "If they oppose my plan, their claims of securing the border are nothing but lip service designed to manipulate the American people into supporting this flawed bill."

The GOP's predicament exemplifies the political Catch-22 members face as the Senate proceeds to debate one of the most explosive issues facing the country. Their activist base opposes comprehensive immigration reform while the broader electorate -- especially Hispanics, the fastest growing share -- supports it. Party strategists warn that in order to remain viable nationally in the long-run, Republicans must be more welcoming of immigrants.

Making matters worse, conservative opponents of reform were already skeptical of the Cornyn amendment, viewing it as weak and gimmicky.

"I like what I see in the sense that GOP pols realize they'll have a hard time getting away with voting for [Sen. Chuck] Schumer's bill," Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told TPM. "[B]ut Rubio's game of hard-to-get and Cornyn's amendment are utterly phony -- just attempts to dupe conservative and independent voters into thinking that they're serious about enforcement."

Pro-reform activists, meanwhile, are applauding Democrats for rejecting Cornyn's measure.

"Cornyn's amendment is a 'my way or the highway' deal and his entire goal is to make the path to citizenship unworkable," Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of the pro-reform group America's Voice, said in an interview. "That's not an offer, that a strategy to derail the bill and Democrats saw it for what it was."

Reid's pushback suggests that Democrats believe they have the upper hand in negotiations, and reveals limits in how far they're willing to go to appease conservatives. The Democratic leader told Univision he believes the legislation -- which was negotiated by four Democrats, four Republicans and a range of powerful stakeholders -- has at least 60 Senate votes and that Cornyn's amendment was "only an attempt to hurt the bill."

Cornyn, more broadly, faces a variety of competing pressures. As the No. 2 Republican senator, he has to worry about the party's national viability -- which risks taking a huge hit if immigration reform fails. But he needs to balance that with his conservative electorate in Texas and, if his voting history is any indication, his restrictionist inclinations.

Reid said Friday he hopes to wrap up the legislation by July 4.