WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer used a light moment to make a hefty promise Wednesday when addressing a roomful of Hawaii business leaders and politicians.
If Democrats win back the majority in either the House or the Senate in November, he said, Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform because ultimately “it’s a bipartisan issue.”
The New York senator’s comments came as part of his address to the fifth annual Hawaii on the Hill event organized by Sen. Mazie Hirono and Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.
The event showcases dozens of the state’s businesses and gives attendees a chance to meet with top political leaders and experts on topics ranging from military spending to agricultural grants.
Among the elected officials from the islands who attended Wednesday were state Senate President Ron Kouchi, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, state Reps. Sylvia Luke and Scott Nishimoto, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho and Honolulu City Council members Ron Menor and Kymberly Pine.
Schumer, the highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, blamed the House — and in particular a small faction of Tea Party activists — for stalling on a fix to the country’s immigration woes.
He pointed to a bill he and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona were able to get passed through through their chamber in 2013 by a 68-32 margin, but that ultimately died when the House refused to take it up.
And while Schumer was talking to a friendly audience — Hawaii is solidly blue — the senator didn’t ignore perhaps the largest hurdle to immigration reform — President Donald Trump.
“The business community, even the Koch brothers, are for immigration reform, but Donald Trump is not,” Schumer said, referrring to the libertarian mega-donors Charles and David Koch.
“I’m hopeful that if we get the majority we will be able to persuade — because there are a lot of Republicans who want to join us in doing it,” Schumer said. “They’re just held back by their leadership.”
Much of Schumer’s speech, however, was reserved for praise for Hirono, who is expected to cruise to re-election this year as the only Democrat on the ballot.
He also talked about his love for Spam musubi, a Hawaii treat that he and Hirono have come to enjoy together during Hawaii on the Hill, which culminates each year with a banquet of island-style fare.
Also speaking during the event’s “policy summit” Wednesday were U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington. Both cited special bonds between their states and Hawaii.
Murkowski, a Republican, described the relationship between Hawaii and Alaska, two states isolated from the remainder of the country, as “almost legendary.”
The recent summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was also discussed.
Hirono and others, particularly Democrats, were skeptical of the meeting and what it means for denuclearization of the rogue nation.
Hirono said she was worried that Trump unilaterally promised Kim that the U.S would halt joint military exercises with South Korea.
But Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who sits on the Armed Services Committee with Hirono, defended the president’s actions, saying that “maybe we’re breathing a little easier” now that denuclearization is on the table.
“I’m not going to put that in the bank just yet, but I have to say it’s a promising development,” Wicker said. “And I’m willing for us to forgo a war game or two on the southern end of that island as a good faith gesture.”
Wicker wasn’t alone in his optimism. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said she, too, considered the meeting a “positive step forward.”
“We obviously understand, perhaps more than most, the seriousness of a nuclear-armed North Korea,” said the Hawaii Democrat. “As long as we’re on this diplomatic path that allows us to remove this threat in a peaceful way, then I think we’re on the right track.”
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