Immigration bill clears early Senate hurdles

Chris Moody & Rachel Rose Hartman

A bipartisan bill to overhaul the nation's immigration system easily cleared its first procedural hurdles Tuesday afternoon, belying the difficult fight that remains in Congress for the legislation.

The Senate on Tuesday afternoon voted 84 to 15 to proceed to debate on the bill, allowing senators to begin voting on amendments to the legislation. All 15 "no" votes came from Republicans, but a majority of the party in the chamber voted to proceed to the amendment process.

The initial nod of approval, however, does not mean GOP lawmakers who voted yes on the procedural matter will vote for final passage. Over the coming weeks, Republicans and Democrats will propose their own changes to the bill. Many Republicans, including the bill's co-author, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have said they will reject final passage unless the chamber agrees to amendments that strengthen border security.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted in favor of Tuesday's motion to proceed, said he would withhold judgement on whether to support the bill's final passage until after the amendment process.

"It’s time for the Gang of 100 to do its work — for the entire Senate to have its say on this issue, and see if we can do something to improve the status quo," McConnell said. "At the risk of stating the obvious, this bill has serious flaws. I’ll vote to debate it and for the opportunity to amend it, but in the days ahead there will need to be major changes to this bill if it’s going to become law. These include, but are not limited to, the areas of border security, government benefits and taxes."

The amendment process begins one of the most contentious periods for the bill in the Senate. Republican opponents of the overhaul are expected to offer a series of amendments that could derail the effort. Likewise, Democrats will be required to support changes that strengthen enforcement or face defections from key Republicans who have worked on the bill from the beginning.

Rubio is planning to introduce an amendment to delete a provision that allows immigrants to obtain green cards if they enroll in a government-approved English course. He has also expressed concern over border control measures—something Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has said he will address by introducing an amendment to require four border security "triggers" to be met before a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented can be undertaken.

Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana on Tuesday voted against the procedural measure. "A bill with a $6.3 trillion price tag that completely walks away from border security is not ready for serious discussion or consideration,” Vitter said. “With so many dangerous flaws, I’ll be opposing the motion to proceed.”

Hours before the vote, President Barack Obama called on Congress to come together to support what he views as the country's best hope to fix the current system.

"If you're not serious about it—if you think that a broken system is the best America can do—then I guess it might make sense to try to block it," Obama said of the bill during remarks delivered in the White House East Room. "But if you're actually serious and sincere about fixing a broken system, this is the vehicle to do it and now is the time to get it done. There is no good reason to play procedural games or engage in obstruction, just to block the best change we've had in years to address this problem."

Obama described the pathway to citizenship offered by the bill as "arduous," noting background checks, learning English, paying taxes and going to the back of the line for citizenship applications. It is estimated it will take 13 years before today's undocumented immigrants can even apply, if the bill is passed by the end of this summer.

Obama, who has made immigration reform a second-term priority, highlighted other aspects of the bill: It would invest millions of additional funds in border security; work to modernize the immigration system; increase penalties against smugglers and traffickers; allow employers to check the immigration status of potential employees more easily; and hold those who hire undocumented workers more accountable.

Obama on Tuesday stressed that the bill is not going to make every stakeholder in the immigration debate happy, but that it remains the best path forward.

There is "no good reason to stand in the way of this bill," he said.

Supporters who appeared with Obama on Tuesday morning included local law enforcement officials, lawmakers from Texas and California, clergy, business leaders, union officials such as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and DREAMers—undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children.

Obama encouraged lawmakers to think of DREAMers as well as their parents and grandparents as they take up debate on the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is aiming to push final Senate passage of the bill by July 4.

In the House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is working on its own version of an immigration reform package. House Speaker John Boehner has urged committees to wrap up their work on the bill by the Fourth of July recess. Boehner said in an interview Tuesday with ABC News that there is "no question" the overall bill could pass by the end of the year.