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.
The lawmakers themselves discussed a small number in meetings held either in the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., or John McCain, R-Ariz.
Even though immigration legislation is a top priority for President Barack Obama, the White House was held at arms’ length. Administration officials were consulted about the feasibility of quickly establishing a nationwide biometric system to track immigrants, for example, but were not invited to the meetings.
It was only by accident that the public might have learned of the gang’s power.
Speaking into a microphone that he evidently did not realize would pick up his voice, Schumer asked an aide during one vote, "Do our Republicans have a pass on this one?"
In fact, for days, the two GOP Gang of Eight members on the committee, Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, wound up opposing changes they might otherwise have supported — far more often than was the case with the Democrats, Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Among them were numerous attempts by other Republicans to toughen border security requirements before legalization can begin or to otherwise make provisional legal status harder to obtain.
Still other proposals were reshaped to meet the conditions of the Gang of Eight, including one by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and John Cornyn of Texas, one the Democratic committee chairman, the other the Senate’s second-ranking Republican.
They wanted to change a provision providing $1.5 billion to deploy "additional fencing in high-risk border sectors," proposing instead that the money go to "fencing, infrastructure and technology." Officials said that ran afoul of the wishes of Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Gang of Eight, who had made construction of the fence a priority.
In the end, a compromise emerged, with $1 billion to be spent exclusively on fencing and $500 million available for that purpose or other infrastructure or technology.
In addition to Rubio, the gang members not on the Judiciary Committee are McCain and Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
The knowledge that the Gang of Eight would object caused some proposals to wither without a vote.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., prepared two gun-related amendments, but he had only one of them debated and withdrew it without a vote he was certain to lose.
On the other hand, amendments that the Gang of Eight decided didn’t threaten their measure or might strengthen it rose or fell based on other factors. The phasing in of the biometric system, a Republican suggestion, was a key one.
Hirono deferred on several of her proposals but chose a different course on a proposal to let U.S. citizens suffering from extreme hardship petition for a sibling or adult married child to immigrate.
"This is a tiny change and would be utilized only in the most sympathetic cases," she said. She noted that as drafted, the legislation eliminated an existing preference for siblings eager to follow family members to the United States, a category that historically has tended to benefit immigrants from Asian nations.
"I understand that my amendment is in conflict with the agreement that the Gang of Eight reached on this bill," she said, adding, "If they were not part of the Gang of Eight, I believe they would support this limited amendment."
In the debate that followed, two nongang Democrats on the committee, Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Chris Coons of Deleware, said they would support Hirono.
But Graham said an issue of overriding importance to him had been the bill’s establishment of a new system for legal immigration. "What I’m trying to do is have a family component within a merit-based immigration system, not turn immigration into chain migration family-based immigration…. And I will continue to insist on that for my participation," he added.
Schumer and Durbin quickly closed ranks, saying they would oppose Hirono’s proposal reluctantly.
In a gesture to Graham and Flake, Durbin said the two Republicans had "stood by the agreement when it wasn’t easy politically. I feel duty-bound to do the same thing at this moment."
Graham said he understood the vote was tough for Democrats. "Sen. Flake and I have been voting for six days" against proposals they might otherwise have favored, "so glad to have you on board," he said.
Laughter filled the committee room.
Moments later, Hirono’s amendment was rejected 11-7, another in an unbroken series of victories for the Gang of Eight.