MONTPELIER — Fresh off a successful vote on the immigration bill on which he ran point, Vermont’s senior senator headed home Friday from Washington, D.C., for a victory lap in Montpelier.
But with Tea Party “radicals” conspiring against the legislation in the U.S. House, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the bill’s prospects remain fraught.
During a morning press conference at his State Street office in Montpelier, he hailed the 68-32 vote on the immigration bill as a beacon of bipartisanship in an otherwise fractured Congress.
But he said conservative Republicans in the House may yet derail the most comprehensive immigration reform in decades.
“I think it would be a tragic thing for us if we don’t get this bill through the House,” Leahy said.
House Speaker John Boehner said this week he won’t put a bill up for a vote unless it has majority support in his Republican caucus. But Leahy reserved blame not for Republican leadership, but on the “tiny radical element” he said has tied Boehner’s hands.
“The speaker is a good man. He’s also a good legislator,” Leahy said of the Ohio congressman. “But he is being thwarted by a tiny and radical element, the Tea Party element in the House, and they’re threatening his speakership.”
Leahy said it’s now up to Boehner to buck the obstructionists who simply “don’t want any immigration,” and stand up for legislation that won the support of 14 Republicans in the Senate.
“Frankly, if I was in the House, I’d rather be right than be speaker,” Leahy said. “And I think what (Boehner) ought to do is say, ‘we’re going to do what is best for the country, not what is best for a tiny minority.’”
Leahy said he’ll work his House connections to help the bill along. He said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is “an old friend.” He said he has a meeting scheduled with the Virginia Republican when he returns to Capitol Hill next week.
“We’ve worked together on a lot of things,” Leahy said.
Leahy said the 1,000-page immigration bill is sprinkled with provisions that would be of particular importance in Vermont, including one that carves out new protections for undocumented workers on dairy farms. Leahy said it didn’t make sense to treat migrant dairy workers in the same way the U.S. handles visas for seasonal farm workers.
“You can’t say to the cows, ‘OK, we’ll milk you for four months and be back six months from now,’” Leahy said.
Leahy said he blocked a proposal that would have imposed border-crossing fees on cars passing between the United States and Canada. And a federal law that allows for patrol checkpoints as far as 100 miles away from the U.S. border would, under the Senate bill, be pulled back to 25 miles.
“It bothered me a great deal to find these checkpoints on the northern border are going 100 miles (away from the border),” said Leahy, who said he’d received complaints from constituents about a permanent checkpoint in White River Junction that has since been disbanded.
Leahy said Vermont symphonies will benefit from a provision that streamlines visas for guest artists “to come in from overseas just for one or two performances.”
Leahy, whose grandparents emigrated to Vermont from Italy, said his ancestors came here with “all the customs of the Old World, now with the American flag flying on their front porch. He said 21st century immigrants deserve the same opportunities his family enjoyed.
“In all my years (in the Senate), I cannot think of a time I was so emotional on the floor,” Leahy said. “I was talking about my family, about (my wife’s) family .. and then talking about the young dreamers who now have a path to citizenship. We’ll get there.”
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