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On Day One of immigration panel debate, border security in focus

Kicking off a first day of edits to comprehensive immigration reform legislation, lawmakers on a key Senate panel grappled Thursday over efforts to secure the nation’s borders and prevent a new wave of illegal entrants.

As expected, Democrats on the 18-member Senate Judiciary Committee were joined by two Republican members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight in opposing the most stringent border security amendments offered by opponents of the bill, ranging from a massive influx of boots on the ground at the nation’s southern border to delays to the program that would make undocumented immigrants eligible for a probationary legal status.

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Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) (C) confers with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) (R) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (L) during the Senate Judiciary Committee's markup for the immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill May 9, 2013 in Washington, DC.

But the panel also adopted a total of 21 amendments, including eight proposed by Republicans. Those included measures to beef up oversight of the legislation’s implementation, offer greater flexibility to the Department of Homeland Security to allocate funds for technology and infrastructure, and include private landowners in a task force consulting on border security. The panel also accepted an amendment by ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley that would widen the areas subject to border security strategies beyond the most high-risk sectors.

In the seventh hour of negotiations otherwise largely devoid of fireworks, frustrated foes of the legislation lamented the defeat of seven GOP amendments throughout the day.

“The Gang stuck together – as we’d been told they would – on anything that significantly impacted their legislation that they drafted with their friends,” said leading opponent Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.  

“The committee has consistently rejected any attempts to put real teeth in this bill to secure the border,” alleged Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. “And if it doesn’t have real border security, in my opinion, this bill will not pass.”

Throughout the day, bipartisan drafters of the legislation emphasized their belief that the original legislation has tough border security measures and noted that they are open to improvements.

Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, a member of the Gang of Eight, said opponents were wrong to accuse the committee of “stiff-arming” suggestions from GOP members.

 “We’ve accepted eight Republican amendments,” he said. “We’re open to good ideas from both sides.”

A frustrated Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the bipartisan drafting group,  suggested that Cruz and other foes of the bill decry the “false issue” of inadequate border security while working to cut the legislation’s centerpiece provision to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The dispute spotlighted tensions in the committee as proponents of reform reject amendments intended to upset the legislation’s delicate compromises without appearing close-minded to legitimate efforts to improve the bill.

Republican Gang of Eight members Sens. Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham were joined by Orrin Hatch in voting down a Cruz-sponsored measure that would have tripled the amount of agents on patrol and quadrupled resources like drones and helicopters at the border.

Politico Playbook: "Tea party heavyweights Marco Rubio and Jim DeMint are on opposite sides of the immigration debate – and they're duking it out for the support of the movement," write Politico's Anna Palmer and Tarini Parti. John Harris joins Morning Joe to discuss.

Opponents of that amendment said it would be both prohibitively expensive and unnecessarily at a time when the number of border patrol agents is at an all-time high; it failed five votes to thirteen.

The panel also rejected a Grassley amendment that would have delayed the process of making undocumented immigrants eligible to apply for provisionary legal status until the Department of Homeland Security demonstrated “effective control” of the southern border for six months.

Gang of Eight members argued that waiting to make undocumented immigrants come forward would ultimately delay the implementation of other components of reform – like a workplace-verification system – and would therefore hurt the bill’s larger goal of preventing more illegal immigration.

“I think it would be the wrong approach to delay bringing people out of the shadows,” said Flake.

By the same margin, the committee voted down a measure proposed by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that would have required fast-track congressional approval of the Department of Homeland Security’s border security plan before undocumented immigrants could apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant status.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who does not serve on the Judiciary panel but is a crucial Republican supporter of the bill, said in a statement that he is "encouraged" by the process so far.

"There’s still a long way to go, but I am encouraged that we are witnessing a transparent and deliberate process to accept input to improve this legislation," he said.

The panel’s markup process will continue next Tuesday.

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