To harness your power, consider a coalition

The story of how the U.S. Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform offers guidance for negotiators seeking to build support for a cause.

By on / Dealmaking

On June 27, members of the so-called Gang of Eight took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to make their final arguments for the sweeping immigration bill they had negotiated and promoted for months. After Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida finished his remarks, the other members of his coalition flocked to him, patting his back and congratulating him, the New York Times reports.

It was a rare display of bipartisanship in Congress: Four members of the Gang of Eight are Republicans; four are Democrats. Later that day, the Senate showed its approval of the coalition’s efforts, voting 68 to 32 in favor of the immigration bill. At this writing, it appears unlikely that immigration reform similar to the Senate bill will pass in the House of Representatives.

Nonetheless, the Gang of Eight’s ability to form a strong coalition capable of successfully steering a controversial agenda through a highly divided Senate was noteworthy and is worthy of study.

Whenever you are having difficulty pushing forward an agenda, it may be time to think about forming a coalition. In coalitions, several relatively weak parties who might otherwise be competing against one another—and against a common adversary—join forces to negotiate as a collective. Labor unions, for example, allow workers to avoid competing with one another on various employment issues and present a united front to management. In a similar manner, a coalition of business units could lobby upper management to adopt a new technology.

In his article “Getting to Maybe” in the June 24 issue of the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza offered a detailed account of the formation of the Gang of Eight coalition and its efforts to develop an immigration reform bill that was comprehensive yet palatable to a majority of senators. As we will show, the story offers significant lessons on coalition formation for business negotiators.

1. Choose members with care.
Following Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election, many Republican leaders felt motivated to find a way to win over Hispanic voters, whose support of Barack Obama had proved pivotal to his victory. Immigration reform, traditionally a Democratic cause, was an obvious focus for their attention.

Senate Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina pegged Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York as the natural leaders of the initiative. All three had worked together on a failed immigration reform effort in 2010. “We want to get the old band back together,” Graham told Schumer, according to the New Yorker.

That December, McCain and Schumer strategized about which senators to invite to join a bipartisan eight-person coalition on immigration. They agreed that candidates would have to promise to abide by two criteria: (1) to tackle the three major immigration issues (citizenship, border security, and foreign workers) in one bill and (2) to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Learning from the past

As their coalition took shape, Schumer and McCain studied past immigration-reform negotiations with the hope of avoiding their mistakes.

To take one example, Schumer researched a 2007 bill sponsored by McCain and the late Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, which had failed to attract a broad coalition beyond its Democratic base. Looking for ways to appeal more to moderate and conservative Americans, Schumer decided to use the term “illegal immigrants” in public statements rather than “undocumented workers,” the term Kennedy had favored.

As this example shows, leaders of successful coalitions focus not only on the big picture but also on small details that could have a large impact.

Schumer was in charge of finding three worthy Democrats. His first pick was Bob Menendez of New Jersey—largely a symbolic choice, given that Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants and the only Hispanic Democrat in the Senate. Schumer also invited Illinois senator Dick Durbin, a coauthor of the DREAM Act, a bill that offers a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. Not only did Durbin “deserve” to be part of the group because of his passion for the cause, but “he was the liberal,” Schumer told the New Yorker. Finally, Schumer admitted Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado, a politically moderate state with a growing Hispanic population. Bennet had been asking for months to join any immigration reform effort that emerged, according to Schumer.

On the Republican side, McCain ignored instructions from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to invite two conservatives known to be skeptical of comprehensive immigration reform to join the gang, for fear they would spoil the deal. McCain and Schumer pursued Mike Lee of Utah, hoping to snare a Tea Party conservative, but ruled him out after he refused to agree to support a pathway to citizenship.

Schumer and Durbin narrowed in on Jeff Flake, a Senate newcomer whom they had gotten to know at the House of Representatives’ gym. Flake, who had worked on immigration while serving in the House, agreed to join the coalition.

All the gang’s members were eager to get Florida Republican Marco Rubio on board. A rising star with presidential ambitions, Rubio was a Tea Party favorite and the son of Cuban immigrants. To gauge Rubio’s interest and his positions, Durbin started chatting with him during early-morning gym workouts. Gang members were delighted to learn that Rubio favored comprehensive immigration reform. In exchange for Rubio’s support for a pathway to citizenship, the Democrats on the team agreed to adopt his plan to predicate legalization efforts on border security.

The gang was complete. To attract support from a variety of groups, members were chosen for symbolic reasons (race or political leaning). To ensure that the coalition would function smoothly, members were chosen based on social ties and shared positions. And to guarantee members’ strong commitment to reaching a deal, members also were vetted for their passion about the issue at stake.

2. Speak with one voice.
During a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the start of his second term, President Obama had revealed that he planned to make immigration reform one of his “top-tier agenda items,” according to the New Yorker, and that he would announce his immigration plan in a major speech a few days later in Las Vegas.

To Obama’s surprise, Senator Bob Menendez asked him to hold back. Menendez explained that the Gang of Eight had made real progress over several weeks of negotiations and planned to announce their own immigration-reform framework two days after Obama’s scheduled speech. A detailed initiative from Obama would leave Republicans in Congress feeling cornered, Menendez argued— trapped into rejecting an “Obama bill” and then pushing the gang’s bill to the right. “It’s really got to be a negotiating process” with Republicans, Menendez told the president.

Soon after the caucus meeting, Durbin and Schumer called Obama and urged him to keep a low profile on immigration. The gang also rescheduled their press conference to precede Obama’s planned speech by two days. In Las Vegas, Obama refrained from unveiling his full immigration plan and instead put forward a set of rough principles. In the weeks ahead, the president telephoned four members of the Gang of Eight and told them that he would let them write their own legislation and help only as needed.

To be effective, a coalition must speak with one voice. For this reason, coalition leaders may need to intervene when a member or an outside partner threatens to go off -message. Knowing that immigration reform would have to be a bipartisan eff ort to win Senate approval, the Gang of Eight took steps to preempt Obama on the issue.

3. Negotiate with influential others.
As they drafted the legislation, the gang focused on addressing the three core issues that formed the immigration debate: (1) secure borders and strict enforcement of immigration laws, (2) a tough but fair path to citizenship for 11 million people, and (3) updated rules on foreign workers to address U.S. labor shortages.

Obama may have agreed to largely stay out of the public discourse on immigration reform, but one White House offi cial told the New Yorker that Schumer and Durbin regularly asked the administration to sign off on policy options they were considering. At one point, Republican members of the gang insisted on a “trigger” that would make a pathway to citizenship for current undocumented immigrants conditional on a secure border. Obama opposed the trigger. Ultimately, the Republicans agreed that if the borders were not 90% effective, a special border commission would be appointed. In this manner, the trigger was downgraded to a target.

The gang understood the importance of keeping Obama in the loop. If he grew frustrated with their pace or their proposals, he might move forward with his own plan— and potentially stymie a bipartisan congressional agreement in the process. Th e broader lesson: In addition to negotiating internally, coalition members may also need to engage with outside partners who could thwart their plans, whether intentionally or not.

4. Delegate complex issues.
In the Gang of Eight’s negotiations, the most difficult aspect of the immigration debate proved to be the issue of a legal-guest-worker program that would help stem the influx of undocumented immigrants. Traditionally, labor unions have opposed temporary-worker plans, which they say take jobs from Americans, while business interests have supported them.

Rather than trying to untangle the debate themselves, Schumer and Graham assigned the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to negotiate their own provision, promising to “slide” it into the bill, according to the New Yorker. Gang of Eight members of both political parties felt confident that their interests would be represented in the final outcome.

Beyond a general statement of principles, business and labor returned empty-handed after an initial round of negotiations. The key points of contention were wages for foreign workers (business wanted them lower; labor wanted them higher) and objections from the Building and Construction Trades union about allowing more
foreign labor.

The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce ultimately were able to reach agreement with the help of aides to Schumer and Rubio. The two sides came to terms on wages, and the construction union won a cap on the number of visas issued to foreign construction workers. Meanwhile, side negotiations with the agriculture industry and the high-tech industry were wrapped up. Upon learning that this side of the triangle of issues had been resolved, Schumer told the New Yorker, he began to believe for the first time that a deal might be in sight.

As this story suggests, a coalition need not take responsibility for every negotiation related to its initiative. If coalition members feel confident that interested parties are capable of negotiating successful side deals, they may be able to stay out of the fray and accept whatever outcome is reached.

Half the battle won
Once drafted, the Gang of Eight’s bill moved on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it faced an onslaught of more than 300 amendments.

The Gang of Eight met privately to review the amendments, which had to be resolved before the bill could face a Senate vote. To preserve their broader goals, the four Gang of Eight senators who belonged to the Judiciary Committee— Graham, Flake, Durbin, and Schumer—had to make some painful concessions. After Graham threatened to walk away from the bill if an amendment extending new immigration laws to members of married same-sex couples was included, for example, Durbin and Schumer reluctantly announced that they would vote against the amendment, despite their support of gay marriage. In the end, the amendment wasn’t called for a vote.

By late June, the bill had cleared the Judiciary Committee and faced its final hurdle: a Senate vote. Schumer worried that without a “super-majority” of 70 votes, the bill would not attract the support of House Republicans. Members of the Gang of Eight worked the phones, trying to drum up last minute support.

In the end, the bill attracted 68 votes, 14 of them Republican. Speaking to the New Yorker, one presidential aide speculated on the significance of the Gang of Eight’s bill, or something like it, eventually becoming law aft er passing in the House: “The lesson [would be] that, if both parties see something in their political interest, they’re very good at getting it done.”

Yet hopes for House passage of an immigration bill resembling the Gang of Eight’s bill were already dimming soon aft er the Senate vote. Speaker John Boehner said that the House would start over with its own immigration bill and that it would require broad Republican support. With most House Republicans based in districts with small Hispanic populations, the fear of alienating their base appeared to overshadow the long-term goal of winning new Republican voters for the next presidential election. In a future issue, we will look at the complex interests surrounding the House’s confrontation with immigration reform.

4 Keys to an Effective Coalition

Vet members with care.

      • When forming a coalition, you will want to attract diverse members who can appeal to a wide range of interests while working together to find common ground.

Send a unified message.

      • When communicating its agenda, a coalition can’t afford to convey contradictory messages or to be overshadowed by someone who could thwart a deal. Negotiate a disciplined, unified approach.

Target outside partners.

      • Identify other individuals and groups who are fighting for the same cause that you are and look for ways to engage them. By doing so, you may gain valuable allies while ensuring that they don’t inadvertently undermine your work.

Don’t be afraid to delegate.

    • Because your coalition might not be educated on all the issues at stake, it may be a good

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