Senate negotiators agreed to tighten the border-security elements of the immigration-reform bill, raising supporters' hopes that the comprehensive legislation could pass through the upper chamber with a decisive majority.
Republican lawmakers said the amendment, which will receive a vote early next week, will secure the support of most of the undecided members of their caucus. About half of the 46 Republicans in the Senate are considered up for grabs. The other half opposed the legislation.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a key sponsor of the legislation, called the agreement a "border surge." The border deal makes unprecedented efforts to stop illegal border crossings. It writes a specific border-security plan into law, doubles the 20,000 border-patrol agents currently on the payroll, and doubles the 350 miles of border fence already required under the bill. No undocumented immigrant who is transitioning to citizenship could get a green card under the proposal until those resources have been put in place.
"It's going to get them a bunch of votes," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is one of the GOP lawmakers immigration-reform advocates predict will vote 'yes' on final passage.
"It's solved the riddle of how we deal with border security in a way without allowing somebody in future years who is against citizenship to impede that path," said Schumer.
Democrats are enthusiastic about the deal if it means they can get an overwhelming vote of support for the whole package. If at least 20 Republicans vote for the bill in the Senate, the position of proponents becomes much stronger in the more conservative House.
"I'll live with it," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., about the amendment. He is one of the "Gang of Eight" senators who crafted the immigration bill, but he cares most about legalizing the current undocumented population and allowing immigrant families easy access to green cards in the future.
Menendez told National Journal that he wouldn't have signed off on the deal if he thought it would get in the way of citizenship. "I'm told by the administration that it's all achievable," he said.
The border deal came together shortly before the Senate voted to reject an amendment from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that Democrats labeled a "poison pill" because it would have halted citizenship for transitioning immigrants until the border patrol had stopped 90 percent of attempted border crossings. Democrats said such a benchmark could be manipulated by future administrations that aren't immigrant-friendly, creating a broad population of immigrants in limbo.
The Cornyn amendment was the biggest hurdle in the way of the immigration legislation. Cornyn had carefully crafted it to mirror the bill crafted by the Senate "Gang of Eight" Republicans and Democrats, but he changed the bill's border-security goals to hard benchmarks that had to be met before anyone could make the final steps toward citizenship. He repeatedly noted that promises of border security can be broken. Hard-core contingencies cannot. His argument was convincing enough that several Republicans who are expected to support final passage also supported him, including Hatch and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The amendment, which required 60 votes, was defeated by a vote of 54-43.