WASHINGTON - Day after day, Sen. Jeff Sessions argues against an immigration overhaul bill that GOP party leaders, and a sizable share of his Republican colleagues, say is critical to any chance of a national comeback for the party out of power in Washington.
The legislation headed for passage in the Senate would cost the nation jobs and depress wages, Sessions says in the Judiciary Committee, on the Senate floor, in hallway interviews and to just about anyone who asks. It's not paid for, he argues. Nor, Sessions adds, would it guarantee better border enforcement.
Lawmakers don't really know what the bill does, seeing that it consumes 1,100 pages, according to Alabama's junior senator.
The 66-year-old former prosecutor used a similar approach to help defeat an immigration overhaul in 2006 and 2007, when a president of his own party, George W. Bush, declared it a priority. Now that Democrat Barack Obama has it atop his domestic agenda, Sessions is again the face of Republican opposition to a path to citizenship for millions of people living in the U.S. illegally. The playing field has changed since then, but the path toward a bill actually becoming law is no clearer than it was six years ago now that a sizable tea party faction holds sway in the House.
Round 3, unfolding on the Senate floor and coming soon to a town hall meeting near you, takes place in a nation that says it supports allowing at least some of the 11 million immigrants to gain legal status under certain conditions.
After voters in 2012 returned Obama to a second term in the White House and increased the Democrats' majority in the Senate, the Republican National Committee said in a post-mortem that "comprehensive immigration reform" is key to a GOP comeback. Enough of Sessions' GOP colleagues, led by telegenic and ambitious Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, chose to allow the Senate bill to move toward a final vote.
The public increasingly supports an overhaul of immigration law, under certain circumstances. An Associated Press-GfK poll in April found that 63 percent of respondents favored providing a way for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to become U.S. citizens, up from 50 percent in August 2010. The 2013 results included majorities of Democrats (76 percent), independents (54 percent) and Republicans (52 percent) who favored such a plan.
Yet there was Sessions on the Senate floor this week, peering over his eyeglasses and pointing to charts arguing that Americans don't want more immigrants competing for jobs when the country is still recovering from a deep recession and jobs remain hard to come by.
"The wages of American workers will fall for the next 12 years," Sessions said, citing a report by the Congressional Budget Office. "They'll be lower than the inflation rate, according to this report. That alone should cause us to defeat this bill."
Up for re-election next year, the soft-spoken Sessions has few worries back home. In 2008, after manning the barricades against the last immigration overhaul attempt, he was re-elected with 63 percent of the vote. Taking a hard line against awarding legal status to people breaking the law by their presence here is a plus in Alabama, which in 2011 passed perhaps the nation's toughest immigration law. It allows police to check immigration status during routine traffic stops and detain those who couldn't produce the right papers. The legislation also required schools to verify students' immigration status.
"I think the issues are pretty much the same," Sessions said, likening the law-and-order and economic arguments against the Senate bill during a brief hallway interview Wednesday. "People just want to fix" the system.