An amendment to expand the rights of same-sex, binational couples is threatening to break up the Senate's "gang of eight" which has hammered together a compromise bill on immigration reform.
Some in the bipartisan group of senators are in an uproar over an announcement from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., saying he plans to introduce a series of amendments that would allow same-sex couples to sponsor their foreign partners for green cards, like many straight couples do.
"We never discussed that. We never took a vote on it," says Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "We know politically how it comes down. In terms of any blood oath, one way or the other. It was never taken."
The amendment is one of hundreds expected to be filed by lawmakers hoping to improve the immigration bill. But the legislation has become a flashpoint for advocates who say passing immigration reform without the provision would severely undermine support from the homosexual community.
"The four Republican members of the 'gang of eight' have threatened to derail the immigration bill if gay couples are included in it suggesting that protecting this group, currently left out of our broken immigration system, is somehow different than the other important fixes contemplated," says Fred Sainz, the vice president for communications for the Human Rights Campaign, a group that advocates for equality for the gay community. "If they end up doing that, they should just own it and call it what it is: homophobia. "
The amendment would affect an estimated 36,000 same-sex couples, according to census data.
Republicans say some Democrats are using the issue to push for a bill that will be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
"If [Leahy] tries to introduce that in the Judiciary Committee markup and there are a number of our members on the so-called gang of eight who are pushing back against that, it complicates the pictures significantly," says Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "At least for a lot of Republicans, that makes this hill a little more difficult to climb."
President Barack Obama included the provision in his outline for immigration reform earlier this year, but he recently conveyed his hesitation in fighting too hard for a provision he understands could kill immigration reform and fracture the bipartisan group who outlined sweeping reform.
"I can tell you I think that this provision is the right thing to do. I can also tell you I'm not going to get everything I want in this bill," Obama said over the weekend.
There is concern that if the president pushed too hard for any provision, it could turn away Republicans who are leaning toward voting for the Senate's immigration legislation.
"That is how it cuts," Durbin says. "Remember what Toomey said over the break. People voted against [gun control] because they didn't want to give the president a win. That is part of the reality of this town."
But law experts say that the entire exercise to give binational, same-sex couples the ability to sponsor their spouse for a green card, may not need to come from Congress.
If the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government may begin recognizing state marriages between same-sex couples and give them equal rights.
"The DOMA ruling could change this whole debate," Durbin says.