Are GOP Senators Serious About Changing the 14th Amendment? (Hint: Probably Not.)

Sens. John McCain, right, and Tom Coburn hold a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 3, during which they were asked about their views on the 14th Amendment. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

My colleague Eve Conant wrote about Sen. Lindsay Graham's call for changes to the 14th Amendment in this week's magazine. To recap, Graham said he thinks it's wrong that children of illegal immigrants who are born in the U.S. get automatic citizenship. Since then, a growing group of his GOP Senate colleagues have jumped on the bandwagon—sort of.

The catch? Other than Graham, they're not quite going all the way, instead saying they think it's worth it for Congress to hold hearings on the topic.

Here's the blow-by-blow. After Graham's appeal last week, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said on CBS's Face the Nation that he'd like Congress to hear from consitutional experts on "the state of the law on that proposition." But Kyl doesn't support actually repealing the amendment (or, presumably, Section 1 of the amendment, which deals with birthright citizenship). In fact, he was adamant about this: when a CBS write-up of his appearance on their show suggested he did, Kyl's office complained.

On Tuesday, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) also voiced support for hearings—McCain apparently reluctantly. Asked by Talking Points Memo to clarify whether he objected to Section 1 or its interpretation, he declined to respond.

And perhaps most important, the top GOP senator is also behind the reform push. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also wants hearings, he says, although he, too, stops short of calling for repeal.

Graham's critics have charged he's not serious because he's proposing a constitutional amendment to solve the problem, and the process for approving amendments is long, grueling, and difficult—and success probably unlikely for an issue this contentious. But Graham insists he's serious, and there's something to that: actually amending the Constitution might be the only viable way to eliminate the birthright, however challenging the process. The last time a member of Congress proposed a legislative fix that fell short of an amendment, constitutional experts opined that it would probably be unconstitutional if it passed (it didn't).

But Graham's colleagues are perhaps another story. With support for Arizona's strict immigration law running high and anger at federal handling of the issue running just as high, it's easy to see why politicos are willing to line up behind Graham. But by calling for hearings while refusing to offer their own opinions—or quietly offering their opposition to repeal while loudly proclaiming their support for hearings—McCain, McConnell, and Kyl open themselves up to charges of pandering to voters without any real intention of taking action. And if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and swims like a duck, it's hard to see how it isn't a duck.

UPDATE, 4:30 P.M.: McCain's office has issued a statement from the senator further explaining his view on the issue: "Congressional hearings are always warranted when members of Congress raise the issue of amending our Constitution. Our Founding Fathers intentionally made the process of amending our Constitution extremely difficult." He added that "immediate and full implementation of the McCain-Kyl 10-Point Border Security plan will assist in addressing concerns associated with this issue."