WASHINGTON — For all the soothing words she heard from fellow Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii never had a chance to win a relatively modest change to far-reaching immigration legislation.
Instead, the hidden hand of the Gang of Eight reached out and rejected her attempt to create an immigration preference for close relatives of citizens with an extreme hardship — the same force that had already derailed dozens of other proposals deemed to violate the delicate trade-offs made by the bill's authors.
The gang — the four Republicans and four Democrats who forged the plan— held together "amazingly well under the circumstances," said one member of the Judiciary Committee who was not part of the group. "It's a very complex bill," added Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
The legislation that now goes to the Senate floor creates a 13-year road to citizenship for the estimated 11.5 million immigrants living in the United States unlawfully, establishes a new program to allow low-skilled workers into the country and sharply expands the number of visas for highly skilled workers.
It also mandates a costly new effort to secure U.S. borders against future illegal crossings and remakes the existing system for legal immigration.
Beneath the surface lie dozens of difficult political bargains meant to balance the interests of members of the self-appointed Gang of Eight and various constituencies now welded into a coalition for the bill.
Fixing the precise standards for certifying that the U.S.-Mexican border is secure enough to permit other features of the bill to take effect was one. Setting the requirements, and rights, for those illegally in the country who will apply for "registered provisional immigrant status" was another.
Only four of the eight senators, two from each political party, are on the Judiciary Committee, but aides to all met privately in advance to review roughly 300 proposed amendments. Officials said there were few disagreements among the staff about which would have violated the basic bipartisan agreement and thus needed to be fended off at all costs.