With New Congress, Few Gang-of-Eight Republicans Remain

Retirements and losses signal new direction of party on immigration

Gang of Eight / Getty Images
November 9, 2018

When the 116th Congress convenes next January, it will be without the majority of the Republican supporters of the Gang of Eight's ill-fated immigration plan, signaling a transformation in how left, right, and America in general deal with the issue.

Just 6 of the original 14 Republicans who backed the proposal will return to Congress—and most of these have moved significantly away from their 2013 centrism to being more unambiguously aligned with President Donald Trump. On the left, meanwhile, the bill's original authors all remain, as the Democratic Party grows ever more radical on border issues.

The Gang of Eight proposal—technically, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act—was the work of a group of four Democratic and four Republican senators. On the left were Michael Bennett (Colo.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.); on the right were John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

The proposal was intended as a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. It traded enhanced border enforcement, an end to the diversity visa lottery, and a slight reduction in the number of family visas for an amnesty for America's 11 million illegal immigrants and expanded high- and low-skilled immigration under employment visa categories.

The bill passed the Senate with the votes of 14 Republicans, but was killed in the House by then-speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), who declined to bring it to a vote. This was in no small part because it faced harsh criticism. Voices on the right who argued it was unnecessary, riddled with loopholes, and would lead to a net increase in the foreign-born, especially low-skilled, population, which would further exacerbate many restrictionists' concerns.

Of the 14 Republicans who broke ranks to back the Gang of Eight bill, just 6 remain. Two—senators Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.)—lost reelection in 2016. Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.), whom immigration restrictionist group NumbersUSA gave a lifetime C ranking on his immigration votes, failed to win his reelection bid on Tuesday.

Another crop of three are all officially retiring at the end of this term. Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) has been a staunch ally of Trump (his successor, Senator-elect Mitt Romney, has been vocally critical). But the other two—senators Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.)—have often been at loggerheads with the president. Flake in fact cited disagreement with Arizona Republicans on the issue of immigration as a reason for his retirement.

Among those no longer in the Senate, John McCain (Ariz.) passed away in August after an extended battle with brain cancer and Jeffrey Chiesa (N.J.) served only four months in the position vacated by the death of Frank Lautenberg before declining to run for reelection. Cory Booker (D.) would eventually fill Chiesa's seat.

Of course, there will still be six Gang of Eight supporters in the 116th Congress, including half of the bill's original designers. Two of those—senators Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine)—have proved consistent thorns in Trump's side on a variety of issues, most notably ObamaCare repeal and the appointment of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Both senators' offices did not return requests for comment on whether or not they would still support the Gang of Eight bill.

It's not clear if the other four—original bill authors Graham and Rubio, as well as John Hoeven (N.D.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.)—would back the same proposal today as they did in 2013. But they have made comments that suggest they are in line with Trump's new, populist immigration priorities. Alexander has been receptive to Trump's position, while Hoeven explicitly called for any reform legislation to address Trump's "four pillars."

"Senator Hoeven supports the Secure and Succeed Act, which the Senate voted on in February 2018. That legislation is built on the president's four pillars for reform—building the wall to secure the border, moving to a merit based immigration system, ending the visa lottery as well as chain migration, and providing a solution for DACA," Hoeven's office told the Free Beacon. "The senator believes that this type of approach has the best chance to get enough support to pass in the House and Senate, and it is supported by the president."

Graham, meanwhile, has had to work to thread the needle on immigration. He still backs the DREAM Act—which failed a floor vote back in February—but has also sided with more restrictionist senators like Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R., Texas) to create reform legislation. And Graham has specifically come out in favor of some of Trump's more controversial immigration positions, including restricting birthright citizenship and opposing ICE abolition.

But the most pronounced change by far has come from Rubio. During his ill-fated run for the presidency, the Florida senator distanced himself from the Gang of Eight by saying he expected the conservative House to make the bill "better." And amid January's negotiations over the end of DACA, Rubio explicitly rejected "gang" politics, telling Politico, "What we do here cannot be a product of a group of people that come out of a room and say: 'This is a direction we’re going.'"

Rubio has instead evinced a preference for working with his more conservative colleagues on immigration. He has expressed interest in Cotton and David Perdue's (R., Ga.) RAISE act, which would cut immigration levels by half while transitioning to a points based system.

Rubio, Graham, and their peers have likely all veered right on immigration because of who is in the White House. But it is also likely because as they have gone right, the left has gone further left.

The popular cry among many in the party's left wing, including rising star Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), has been to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—an idea with little popular support. Left-wing news site Vox, for its part, saw fit in the wake of the election to publish a discussion of "why some activists think it's time for fully open borders."

The public, meanwhile, broadly agrees with Trump's four pillars. As such, senators like Rubio and Graham may see moving closer to Trump—even while resisting more controversial policies, like family separation—as the best option when compared with where the left appears headed.