Rob Christensen

Thom Tillis reaching across party lines

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis chairs a roundtable discussion on immigration reform at the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce on May 22, 2017 in Raleigh.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis chairs a roundtable discussion on immigration reform at the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce on May 22, 2017 in Raleigh. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is not the first person who jumps to mind as a bipartisan compromiser.

Tillis rose to power as a leader of what he termed the “conservative revolution” in Raleigh, serving as N.C. House speaker as the Tea Party-driven GOP shifted the state sharply to the political right on a whole series of issues from voting rights to abortion after Republicans took over the legislature in 2011.

Tillis often displayed a sharp partisan edge when he tangled with adversaries such as the N.C. Association of Educators and then-state Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat from Raleigh.

But lately, Tillis has been showing a different side, reaching out to work with Democrats on a number of issues and probing for compromises. This is what responsible legislators do.

On one key issue – immigration and the so-called Dreamers – he has put forward a compromise proposal, though it’s not bipartisan and is drawing fire from both the political right and the political left.

Early this year, Tillis said he wanted to look for ways to work across party lines on some issues. One would not expect Tillis to break rank with other Southern Republicans on major issues, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act or on GOP tax reform. He is not a maverick and he seems politically ambitious.

But he is working around the edges, looking for solutions in an often paralyzed Washington.

“Let’s be clear: The American people didn’t give the GOP a stamp of approval or a mandate to ram through an ideologically driven, far-right agenda,’’ Tillis wrote in an op-ed piece in The Charlotte Observer in January. “If the election was a mandate for anything, it was for elected officials in both parties to break through the gridlock to finally start producing results.’’

There was plenty of skepticism about Tillis’ commitment, whether it was merely political repositioning as he looked toward his 2020 re-election campaign.

But Tillis has been picking his spots to work with Democrats. Here are three examples.

▪ Amid speculation that President Trump might fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, Tillis introduced a bill with Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to make clear Senate opposition to any such move.

▪ In June, Tillis and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, among others, introduced a bill to provide relief to veterans whose Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits are affected by the permanent closure of certain institutions. In 2016, ITT Technical Institute filed for bankruptcy and closed all 136 campuses in 38 states after receiving $917 million in Post-9/11 GI bill funds, leaving many student veterans stranded.

▪ Last month, a bill introduced by Tillis and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota passed the Senate to help veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tillis has most recently introduced a bill to create a pathway for citizenship for so-called Dreamers, the 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as children and who have grown up as Americans if not as citizens.

Along with GOP Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Orrin Hatch of Utah, the so-called Succeed Act offers a more conservative approach than the Democrats’ Dream Act.

The bill creates a 15-year path to citizenship for the Dreamers. It would require them to obtain a high school diploma, pass a criminal background check, submit biometric data to the Department of Homeland Security and pay off any back taxes. It would also require future temporary visa holders to waive their right to an immigration hearing if they violate the terms of their visa. Tillis said his bill must be paired with border security measures.

“We’ll have to take the hits,” Tillis said in introducing the bill. “We’ll take the hits on the far left for saying you’re not getting them to citizenship soon enough, and you’ll take it on the far right for saying you’ve even given them an opportunity to pursue citizenship.”

Immigration advocates have sharply criticized the bill. The right-wing blogosphere has been enraged, with cries of amnesty and threats of running an opponent against Tillis in the 2020 GOP primary.

A profile in Politico this week said Tillis “has methodically carved out a profile as a pro-immigration Republican at a time when the GOP has swerved sharply to the right.”

“Not all of the usual suspects have come out on the right opposing the bill because they’ve actually taken the time to read it,” Tillis told the publication. And “when you sit down and you talk with left-of-center, reasonable Democrats ... then we have people that are having a difficult time opposing it.”

Tillis, a traditional pro-business Republican with close ties to the N.C. Chamber of Commerce and the N.C. Farm Bureau, has long been sympathetic to the argument that employers in such industries as agriculture and the food industry would have a difficult time finding workers without immigrant labor.

He has previously worked with such Democrats as former Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia to make certain that visas were available for workers in such industries as seafood companies.

“He’s been a new player,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-reform National Immigration Forum told Politico. “Not just a new player, but on an issue where we’ve been frankly starving for new talent.’’

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; robc@newsobserver.com

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