WASHINGTON — The immigration reform bill crafted by a bipartisan group of senators has deeply split the Republican minority even as lawmakers prepare to take the first votes on the proposal Thursday.
Alabama's Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative former prosecutor with a courtly drawl, has emerged as the leading opponent of the bill. He is aiming at his GOP colleagues with unusual zeal, and calls out the architects of the bill as, essentially, dishonest.
"Sen. Flake is wrong: It's not a 13-year path to citizenship or welfare," blared one recent missive from Sessions targeting Arizona's Republican senator, Jeff Flake, who helped draft the legislation. "The mass legalization occurs immediately."
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another Republican author of the bill, punches back almost daily with his own "Myth vs. Fact" campaign, separating what he considers truth and fiction in the immigration debate — with much of the latter attributed to his fellow Republicans.
"MYTH: This bill will hurt American workers," reads one recent entry fingering Sessions as the perpetrator.
Republicans are not accustomed to this sort of public infighting, especially in the Senate.
But recent elections changed that as the dominance of the GOP's right flank grew. At the same time, its leaders have sought to broaden the party's appeal to minority and female voters, who have recoiled from the right turn.
The immigration debate splits Republicans with an emotional tone not apparent in recent rifts on the budget and other top issues.
A growing coalition of religious and business leaders has rallied around the argument that newcomers bring many benefits to the nation. On the other side, supporters of more restrictive policies see high levels of immigration as a drag on the wages of U.S. workers and a threat to the country's traditional culture.
"Our duty is to represent the people that are here, the people whose parents fought the wars and made America great first," Sessions said Wednesday as he walked through the Senate halls. "And even though we have sympathy for the people who want to come here — and even those who've been here a long time illegally, we have sympathy for them — we need to be sure that what we do does not place our workers, our people who need jobs, at an adverse advantage."
"I believe that's the moral position. I believe that's the right legal position," he said.
The divide within the party will be on full display Thursday as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins the painstaking task of reviewing the 844-page bill and debating amendments, which is expected to take the rest of the month.
The bipartisan proposal drafted by four Republican and four Democratic senators involves complex trade-offs. It would beef up security on the Southwestern
border to prevent future illegal crossings and create new guest-worker programs, particularly for low-skilled labor. Employers would be required to verify the legal status of all workers.
Within 13 years, most of the estimated 11 million people who have entered the country illegally or overstayed visas would eligible for citizenship if they pay back taxes, fines and fees. Some immigrants who work in agriculture or who were brought to this country as minors and now serve in the military or attend college could begin the legalization process sooner.
Hundreds of amendments have been proposed. Some Republicans have proposed changes that would gut the overhaul. Some Democrats would extend immigration rights to gay couples, a move others in their party oppose because it would cost crucial GOP support.
But it is the Republican feud that is the most stark.
The party's leadership has embraced reform, believing it will help Republicans with Latino voters, who have tilted heavily toward Democrats in recent national elections — dramatically so in President Obama's reelection.
"The fact of the matter is, some of our friends are on the wrong side of the line," said one Republican aide, who asked for anonymity to discuss the party tensions. "They get hit with some of the shrapnel."
Sessions has attacked the bill in the same vigorous way he pushed for convictions as a U.S. attorney in Alabama.
Several full-time lawyers and a few legal fellows assigned to his office spent long nights poring over the bill behind an unmarked door on the third floor of the Russell Senate Office Building.
So far, Sessions is leading what, for the moment, appears to be a small dissident faction of Republicans. Most GOP senators are largely holding their fire. But his campaign, if it takes root with the party's voters, could cause more Republican senators to question the bill.
Rubio's staff members studied why the 2007 immigration overhaul failed and decided they would need to mount an early education effort to dispel misinformation about the bill.
Already, the GOP's think tanks have started to mirror the Republican split in the Senate.
The influential Heritage Foundation, headed by conservative former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, issued a critical report this week estimating that "amnesty" — legalizing the 11 million immigrants who entered this country illegally or overstayed visas — would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion.
The study was met by a chorus of similarly influential conservative economic thinkers, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who argued that immigrants fuel economic growth and increase tax revenue.
Norquist has challenged DeMint to a debate.
A top evangelical leader, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, urged Congress to "focus on the human dignity of each of these individuals and their families — look at them as the asset they are." Evangelicals, including many Republicans, launched a pro-reform prayer campaign Wednesday.
Republicans have observed the fracas with varying degrees of discomfort.
Sessions heard about complaints from Senate colleagues that he was using his post as the top Republican on the Budget Committee to engage in the campaign, and switched to using mostly his personal office, said sources who asked not to be identified while talking about internal discussions.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, an influential Republican on the Judiciary Committee, sought to downplay the almost daily war of words between Rubio and Sessions.
"There's no war. They're just two senators who disagree," he said. "It's a big bill. Sen. Sessions doesn't like it and Sen. Rubio does."