Senate Closes In on Historic Immigration-Reform Measure

Rebecca Kaplan

The Senate cleared a path to an immigration overhaul bill Monday evening with a 67-27 vote to end debate on a border-security measure considered the last obstacle to completion of the reform package before Congress begins its Fourth of July recess later this week.

With support from 15 Republicans and all Democrats but two who were unable to be in Washington, the successful cloture vote leaves no doubt that the legislation will pass the Senate with the big bipartisan majority that the “Gang of Eight” senators who crafted the bill had hoped for. But now they have their sights set on getting 70 votes for final passage, with the idea of putting pressure on the House to pass its version of immigration reform.

Instead of coming out to celebrate the major victory in front of reporters, the eight lawmakers who crafted the immigration law retreated off the floor of the Senate to continue negotiating for votes on 10 amendments from each party, which could unlock the few remaining votes needed to get to 70.

“There’s another four, five Republicans out there that are gettable,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. He pointed to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is still seeking a vote on his E-Verify amendment, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who wants to see some changes to the agricultural-worker program.

“I think it would be a huge missed opportunity if we didn’t get a vote,” said Portman, who voted against ending debate on the border-security amendment Monday in order to push for an additional vote on his E-Verify measure, which he says has bipartisan support. Though he has other amendments he’d like to introduce, this is the one most important for him—and likely the one required to get him to vote yes on the final bill.

“I want to be able to demonstrate to the House that there is bipartisan support for tougher measures at the workplace,” Portman told National Journal Daily.

The vote Monday evening allowed the Senate to end debate on the so-called “border surge” measure crafted by Hoeven and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., which would deploy an additional 20,000 border patrol agents and mandate the completion of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border before allowing registered provisional immigrants to begin applying for green cards. The measure was an important victory for supporters of the bill and cleared the way for a final vote on the underlying measure, expected Thursday afternoon. The final vote on passage of the Hoeven-Corker measure is expected Wednesday morning.

“The bill has been improved dramatically tonight by this vote. There’s no question,” Corker said. “Hopefully there will be other improvements made with other amendments, and my sense is we’re going to pass an immigration bill out of the United States Senate which will be no doubt historic.”

The vote Monday suggests the bill will almost certainly have at least 68 votes on final passage. But one of the Republicans who voted for cloture, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, indicated he was still unlikely to support the final bill.

“This vote shows that the pro-immigration forces on both sides of the aisle continue to make progress,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in a statement. “We realize we have a long hard road ahead of us, but this vote puts the wind at our back.”

In addition to putting a few more Republican senators within reach, debate on additional amendments would help quell Republican complaints that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was shutting down the amendment process.

“Some of the very people that complain about not having amendments are the very people that keep us from having amendments,” Corker said. “I think that would be really good for the bill and really good for the process.”

Fourteen senators—who, except for Wicker, all voted against cloture—sent a letter to Reid on Monday saying the move to shut down the amendment process after Tuesday was “deeply, deeply disturbing.”

“By point of reference, there were 46 roll call votes on floor amendments to the 2007 immigration bill, which was significantly stronger on enforcement,” the letter said. “We believe that there should be, AT A MINIMUM, this same number of roll call votes on serious, contested floor amendments on the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill.”

A Reid spokesman dismissed the charge as disingenuous, saying in a statement, “The senators who signed this letter are the same senators who have been preventing amendment votes from occurring throughout this process. This letter is nothing more than a transparent attempt to suppress the strong bipartisan support for immigration reform.”

Those who signed the letter were joined by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., in voting against the motion to end debate.

While the momentum on immigration legislation is palpable in the Senate chamber, the outlook is bleak in the House. The House Judiciary Committee announced that on Wednesday and Thursday, it will mark up two bills dealing with E-Verify and high-skilled workers, which are the only outstanding immigration bills before the committee at the moment. Though the Republican leadership has not announced plans to bring the bills to the floor for a vote, the measures—which are backed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.—bear no resemblance to the Senate bill. A bipartisan group of members is still working on a comprehensive bill that is nearing completion, but they have not yet indicated when they will unveil their product.