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South Dakota Senator John Thune on trying to amend the immigration bill.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

HH: I want to bring you an update from Washington, D.C. on whither the immigration bill, and who better to do that than Senator John Thune of the great state of South Dakota. Senator Thune, always a pleasure, welcome.

JT: How are you, Hugh?

HH: I’m great. Give us an update. Even though he’s on the other side, a lot of my audience prays for your colleague, Tim Johnson. How’s his recovery going?

JT: We think well. I’ve not had the opportunity to see or visit with him, but the reports that we hear are positive, and that he is headed this way, headed back to work, I’m not sure exactly when.

HH: That is certainly good news. It was very sad news that one of your colleagues, Craig Thomas, Senator from Wyoming, passed away this week as well, so unusual times in the United States Senate. Let’s get to the legislation, Senator Thune. You’re going to offer an amendment. I don’t think it’s already been offered, which is crucial to fixing this bill. Can you tell people what it is and where we are in this process?

JT: Well, where we are, Hugh, is we’ve got a bill, and there have been a lot of good amendments offered, some this afternoon, that have been voted down. Jim DeMint offered an amendment that would require people coming into the country illegally to have some health care coverage, and John Cornyn offered an amendment that would have banned people who are here, and have been caught in criminal activities from being able to be legalized under this process, and that got defeated. So it seems like common sense is in rare supply around here. But what my amendment simply does is it just says that the immediate legalization that comes when the bill is enacted, because of this probationary visa that people can get, that before they can get that immediate legalization, they have to, the triggers have to be met. In other words, we have to have the border security component done, there has to be a certification that we’ve got the border agents, that the fence has been built, that there’s an employee verification system in place, the catch and release program has been ended. And I think that’s very straightforward. And frankly, it’s what I think most people in this country want us to deal with first, and that is let’s get this border under control, and then we can deal with these other issues. So we don’t think that we ought to be putting people who’ve come here illegally at an advantage relative to those who’ve played by the rules.

HH: Senator Thune, obviously, that’s the 601H exemption, right? That’s the…

JT: That is correct, yeah.

HH: And that jumped out at me the first time I spent the weekend, a couple of weekends back, flat on my back but reading the bill, and that 601H swallows everything. What sort of support do you have for removing that probationary benefit’s bestowal?

JT: I think it is a no-brainer, and Hugh, you must be one of the few people in the country that caught that, because I think a lot of people who are on the bill have no idea that that’s what this does. I mean, we’ve been saying all along that this is a loophole that needs to be closed. But essentially, what they have done is they’ve gone out and sold this as having all these triggers that have to be met, all these conditions that have to be met before the legalization can occur, and then they put this little sentence in there that essentially exempts all people who get a probationary status from these trigger requirements in 601H. So it is, to me, it’s a huge loophole in this bill you could drive a truck through. And I hope that again, it’s a common sense amendment that we can get a lot of support for. I frankly don’t know. They’ve been able to defeat all the amendments so far, many of which are on the surface, great amendments that would improve and strengthen the bill. But it seems like the coalition that wants this bill to pass, no matter how bad it is, is willing to defeat any good amendments that would make it better.

HH: If your amendment is defeated, Senator Thune, will you be supporting the bill?

JT: I don’t see how. There’s no way that with the things that are in this bill today, I can vote for it unless some of these amendments are accepted.

HH: Now Senator Thune, one of the things I’ve been arguing about on my blog, and in conversations on the radio, is that this bill does not distinguish between Spanish speaking economic migrants and people from the Middle East who have entered the country illegally, most of whom of course are here for the same reasons as the Spanish migrants, economic ones, freedom ones, but some of whom are clearly jihadist or jihadist sympathizers. They’d get these probationary benefits as well. Is anyone in the Senate concerned about the national security implications of what we’re doing here?

JT: I would think that that would be the number one priority, is national security, and knowing that we’ve got jihadists around the world who want to kill us, and that we’ve got a porous border, and that they can come in the same way that anybody else can get into the country today, and that we’ve got 12 million people here that are going to be immediately legalized when this bill, if it ever is enacted. That should be a huge concern to people. And so far, it seems to be falling on deaf ears. But that’s why we’re trying to offer amendments that will draw attention to these flaws in the bill, and that will close some of these loopholes. But as the bill as it currently stands, I think again, is a loophole you could drive a truck through, and it creates an opportunity for people who have intentions to get into the country, and to create harm, and do damage to Americans, the same opportunity that anybody else from any other country in the world, whether it’s our Southern border, or folks from the Middle East who might be associated with radical Islamists, they can get in here, too. And I just think that’s a very serious national security concern, and one…that’s why closing some of these loopholes is so important.

HH: When do you expect the Thune amendment to get a vote?

JT: Well, I’ve been trying to get it called up, Hugh, now, for, since last week, and the Democrats have blocked it from being called up, which means until I can get it called up, I can’t get it voted on. And so what we’re trying to do, and I asked the question this afternoon down there on the floor of Harry Reid as to when some of these other amendments are going to be allowed to be called up. And we think that we’re going to get in the queue here in the next few days. But they’re really, they’re kind of jerking people around who have amendments, particularly amendments that they don’t want to vote on, from getting those considered. So I’m hopeful that we’ll get a vote on it, and when we do, that we’ll get a majority vote on it, but based on the way some of these amendments have gone so far, I have my doubts about whether we’re going to be able to improve this bill at all as a result of the amendment process.

HH: I’m talking with Senator John Thune of the great state of South Dakota. Senator Thune, last night in the Republican debate, in an afterthought, Senator McCain simply said we’re not going to build fences or barriers. I was stunned, I’ve written about it, I’ll be playing it later in the show when I have my audio ready to go. Part of my problem with this bill is it’s cutting the 700 miles in half as a trigger. It’s only 350 have to be a trigger, and I’m not even sure we’ll ever get that. What’s going on with the fence?

JT: Well, I think the fence, we’ve got about 70 or 80 miles built. We’re supposed to get over 300, as you mentioned. And we’ve got, and of course, 670 miles over all, that the physical fence is supposed to be built in strategic areas where it’s a real concern, and where it can do the most good. But we’ve got to get that done. I mean, I think this, and whether it’s a UAV surveillance, or whether it’s an actual physical fence, but all these conditions, all these triggers, more border agents, end of catch and release, these are all essential requirements that need to be addressed, because I don’t think that the government or this Congress has any credibility with the American people about dealing with the people who are already here illegally, if we don’t stop the inflow right now. We have to get serious about border security, and until people in this country think we are, I think they’re going to look very suspiciously on anything else we try and do, particularly when it comes to legalization of 12 million people who are currently here illegally.

HH: What about the procedure now? Senator McConnell has made noise that if all the amendments don’t get in, he’s not going to agree to bring the party along for cloture. Is that your understanding?

JT: That is correct. He at least wants to allow for more amendments to be considered. We expect that Senator Reid is, you know, he’s wanting to get to cloture to cut off debate on this. So far, Senator McConnell has stood strong on that. But I think that when you’re talking about something this complex, this massive that has these types of implications for the future, and that these kind of national security implications, with all these moving parts, that we ought to be spending an adequate amount of time on this, we ought to be debating amendments, and trying to improve the bill. So we need that appropriate amount of time on this, and as of right now, they’re trying to shut it off.

HH: Okay, a couple of last questions, Senator Thune. If it clears the Senate, goes to the House, it’ll be amended, and it comes back to conference, and the conference report comes out. Do the Republicans retain the right to filibuster a conference report?

JT: You can filibuster a conference report. You just can’t amend it. So whatever comes back from the conference, we would have an opportunity. And if we can get 41 votes, and if we think it’s an unacceptable product, to stop it. But the way this thing has, the momentum this thing has behind it right now, I don’t know if we would be able to do that. I expect there’s going to be a lot of debate about this, and probably a lot tougher sledding when this gets to the House. But frankly, in a lot of ways, we can’t take a flawed system and fix it with a flawed bill. And there are things that we are doing in this bill that could make matters worse rather than better, and that would be a big mistake.

HH: Do your colleagues hear what the base of the Republican Party is saying? Have they gotten an earful?

JT: I’d like to think they have, Hugh. I really, I question sometimes whether or not they’re listening. I know in my case, in South Dakota, all the communication that we’ve had on this, which is about 700 pieces of mail in the last week or two, there are all but two have been opposed on this. And so I think it’s a no-brainer when it comes to people around this country, and certainly the Republican base. But I also think there are a lot of independent Democrats out there who look at this, and just say this doesn’t make any sense. What are we doing putting illegal immigrants at an advantage relative to people who are playing by the rules and respecting our laws? And I think that’s why people are weighing in, and I hope that my colleagues here in the Senate are hearing that. But it certainly, there’s such a head of steam behind this thing, I just don’t know anymore if there’s, if common sense can prevail. But I hope we still have a chance.

HH: And last question, Senator Thune, the proponents of the bill are talking like it’s a done deal. Do you think it’s a done deal in the Senate?

JT: I think that they have, my view is that there may be a chance that the Democrats, because they’re getting a lot of pressure now from labor unions on their left, that maybe they don’t want a bill after all. I think that it’s not a done deal, but boy, I’ll tell you what, it’s going to be hard, as I said, to stop this thing. And so we’re doing everything we can to make it better. But we will keep fighting the fight.

HH: John Thune, always a pleasure, Senator.

End of interview.

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